Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Letter from California February 24, 2004

Scientists say that California’s beauty comes from the same natural forces that often make it a dangerous place to live. The old joke goes that California has four seasons: summer, mudslide, earthquake, and fire. True enough. Back at Christmas, we went from 70 degrees and sunny to rains so strong that they washed a few million tons of mud down the mountainside, burned out from last fall’s forest fires. Back in 1994, a single cigarette thrown out a car window started a fire in Malibu Canyon that frightened more movie stars than a 100% tax on plastic surgery.

But there’s a natural force even more frightening than earthquake, fires, and mud. When this force comes to the streets of L.A., citizens panic, streets are jammed, news cameras are on every corner to get the dramatic story.

That’s right. Light to moderate rain.

Oh, sure. It doesn’t sound bad to you. Growing up in the Carolinas, I got used to what Forest Gump called “big, fat rain.” As a teenager, my working theory was that as long as I could see the end of the car’s hood, I could keep driving. A few times when stuck in a big thundershower and not too far from my destination, I just looked for a fast-moving stream of water and floated on in, like coasting into a gas station on ‘E’. If water wasn’t coming through the floorboards, I figured it was probably ok to keep on truckin’.

California, particularly L.A., doesn’t really have thunderstorms. In fact, rain hardly ever falls at all between April and October. I remember when my 5-year old son, a California native, visited South Carolina in August and looked at me with puzzlement when water started falling from the sky. “Rain? In summer?” he asked.

So when it does start raining here, two things happen. First, all 2,000,000 drivers in Los Angeles go insane and crash into each other. Seriously, on the first day of rain after a dry spell, the California Highway Patrol reports that accidents more than triple. Why? Perhaps some have forgotten to allow a little extra time to brake or that you’re supposed to turn into a skid. Or turn away from a skid. I forget which one since I haven’t gotten into a skid in a while. Anyway, my other theory is that people have decided simply to drive fast so they’ll spend less time on the dangerous roads.

But don’t take my word for it; take it from an expert. According to the California Highway Patrol’s spokesman Phil Konstantin in San Diego, “there’s lots and lots of crashes.” Don’t you just hate it when public officials start using a lot of fancy jargon? Anyway, I’m sure Officer Konstantin didn’t have time for a long speech with the hundreds of extra crashes in San Diego over the weekend. “Don’t drive unless you have to,” he continued.

Did I mention we got about 2 inches of rain?

Besides the traffic accidents, the second thing that happens during rain can be described as Stormwatch ’04, depending on the year of course. The local news stations send reporters out on the streets to find out how regular people are coping with the rain or what they are going to be doing to prepare for the rain. Each station sends out 6 or 8 reporters each, so if you’re playing hooky from work or school, stay inside because the chances are good you’ll be caught on camera. They might even ask you if you know whether to turn into or away from a skid. Once I saw a reporter standing next to a trickle of water and a puddle during one of these reports and explain that “local residents are concerned” that the water might make the road dangerous. Puddlewatch ’04!

The best reports come from the places where it’s not actually raining, but it might be later. The reporter stands on the pier or the hillside or wherever, looking like they just robbed an L.L. Bean outlet, and talks about how forecasters are predicting that this locale will see some rain later in the evening. While the reporter stands there dressed like he’s about to step onto a fishing boat, someone walks by in the background wearing a t-shirt and sandals throwing a Frisbee to his dog. One day, I hope to see the reporter turn to that person and ask him if he’s done anything to “prepare” for the rain.

And he’ll say, “Yes, I bought a house.”


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