Thunderstorms are a normal feature of much of the United States, but in coastal Southern California they’re largely absent. SoCal is basically a desert near an ocean; most of its rain happens in the winter, when Pacific clouds flow inland and pour themselves out on the dry soil. But lightning usually isn’t part of the bargain. This area contains the most temperate climate in the United States, and giant storms just don’t happen here. Earthquakes, wildfires? Sure. Storms? Not so much.
Now and then, especially in late summer, a monsoon-like condition develops over the region: tropical moisture rolls up from the south, piling itself against the ramparts of the mile-high San Gabriel Mountains, and strong wind drafts roil above the peaks, pumping themselves into giant thunderheads. Now and then, one of these storms will wander away from the mountains to loom over the Los Angeles area. Then we’re treated to the thrill of thunder and lightning directly overhead.
I grew up here and enjoyed the rare excitement of a summer downpour, complete with Nature’s own light-and-percussion show. Much later, I realized our little cloudbursts were paltry compared to those deeper inland. Years ago, while driving toward Las Vegas, I approached the Nevada border during a storm that lit the desert valley with about one lightning bolt per second — a far higher rate than any I’d ever seen in Los Angeles. A friend stayed at a hotel in Missouri and reported a lightning storm that put ours to shame: “It was crash-crash-crash for hours,” he said.
Any big weather in my neck of the woods, then, can feel special. Our thunderstorms — despite their puny output of lightning — are rare enough to seem like sky carnivals. So I was delighted when an early September storm visited after years of absence.
It was the weekend, and I awoke late to the noise of someone stomping around outside. Was it a neighbor downstairs? Then I realized the sound came from real, honest-to-God thunder. I opened the windows and looked out. The sky was dark with clouds, the trees sprinkled with water. It must have drizzled earlier. The air felt humid and warm, though the temperature was barely 70. Thunderous booms echoed against the nearby hills; more rain was on the way. When I looked out again, the leaves were dry. Water doesn’t sit out long in this environment.
The booms got louder. I could hear the crackle of very close lightning. I unplugged my computer from the outlet, in case a discharge should strike the building.
All at once, it began to pour — a heavy shower of big, fat drops. (Later I learned my town had received rain at a rate of better than two inches per hour.) For a moment I wondered if the drops, so large and shiny, were hailstones. But they splattered, rather than clattered, against the roof and walkways. The hillsides turned dark in the wetness, the accumulated dust of summer rinsed off in moments. The air smelled fresh and clean, perfumed by plants and ozone. A bolt of lightning struck the hills; the snap and boom hit my ears in less than three seconds. I was only a half-mile from the electrical center of the storm.
The rain stopped almost as abruptly as it had begun. A few minutes later, sirens roared past on the nearby boulevard. Were they storm related? Perhaps a fire? A heart attack?
The clouds rumbled off to the northwest, stalking the valleys on stilts of lightning, emptying themselves of water as they moved onward. The sun came out and the moisture steamed off of the trees. The effects of the rain were swallowed quickly by the parched earth, and before long it was as if nothing wet or wild had happened at all. Once again, it was a typical day of summer sunshine in Southern California. Like thunder, memories of the noisy downpour echoed and faded.
What, big storms, here? No way! Maybe earthquakes. But storms? Nah.