James Thalman

James Thalman

Story Vault

By James Thalman

Big winds are at home on the range of the Western United States, but when communications center Director Tom Norvelle saw a backyard trampoline drifting like a tumbling tumbleweed toward his car the morning of Dec. 1, "I thought, 'If I see a flying cow, I'm just going to turn around and go home.'"

Flying ruminant reports were about the only calls the crew at the Davis County Emergency Services command center in Farmington, Utah, didn't get that day. Record-level gusts made debris of just about anything not anchored down, tipped over old-growth trees, and picked up everything else and flung it sideways across five states on both sides of The Rockies.

Veteran dispatcher Tanna Dyer, who lives in Farmington and said the winds had been banging her garage door like a kettle drum most of the night, encountered a Porta-Potty on the loose on her way to work—a sight she'd never encountered in her 17 years at the dispatching console. The scene caused Dyer to make a short, somewhat scatological but totally accurate prediction of how the day was likely to roll out. The 60–80 mph gusts that had been knocking everything around all night were just half the speed they were clocked at around 10 a.m.

“Canyon winds are common around here,” Dyer told The Journal during an interview Dec. 19. “But this was something different, something in a class by itself.”

They were hurricane class, to be exact, not to mention the most destructive in modern memory. Between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Mountain Time, record-breaking gusts of 102–120 mph had left windrows of flattened fences, over-turned semi-trucks, downed power lines, giant shards of siding and roof shingles, and general havoc fom Utah through Nevada, Wyoming, and California. By the end of the day, at least eight cities between the Salt Lake City, Utah, area and Los Angeles, Calif., had declared local states of emergency. Damage totals were still being calculated in January but were bumping $1 billion region-wide.

Dee Bird, another Davis County veteran dispatcher and the shift supervisor on that blustery Thursday after Thanksgiving, only heard about such giant windstorms. That day, he said he felt the full force of how destructive one can be, and how they can completely take over a day's work.

"It was busy times 10," Bird said, noting that the pace of incoming calls was so fast that he doesn't remember even shifting in his chair that day. He jokes that he set a kind of personal disaster record himself—12 hours straight with one bite of pizza to eat and not one bathroom break. “My wife called to tell me the power was out at home and I just had to hang up on her,” Bird said.

Norvelle, who lives 12 miles north of the center, hadn’t felt any of the ill winds that morning. For the amount of landscape combed through by the winds, at the point of origin in Davis County, they were strangely narrow, bearing down most fiercely in a 22-mile corridor of eight major canyons in the Wasatch Front. The National Weather Service (NWS) had sent an advisory the evening before that gusts of up to 60 mph were expected the next day.

The first hint Norvelle had that something was going wrong was his normal I-15 commute route to work was closed.

“I knew the back roads in, but I didn’t see any signs of high winds until I reached Kaysville,” a town about four miles north of the dispatch center. “I saw a tree fall over onto another three that also fell over." Neither the traveling trampoline nor bovines aloft would have sent Norvelle back home, of course. He is from South Carolina and had seen worse in his day—hurricanes, tornadoes, and typhoons. He said he didn’t appreciate the full weight of the emergency until he walked into dispatching well of the center at about 6:45 a.m.

“It was extremely busy when I got here,” he said. “I remember thinking I had never seen so much activity at any one time. I remember also feeling extremely grateful that I had the most experienced crew I could have hoped for scheduled that day. That was really lucky.”

The source of that busiest of days, the NWS noted mid-morning, was something called a “high-pressure gradient.” That phrase, which hardly anyone outside of meteorology knew the day before, was regarded as weather talk for “Look out below!” 24 hours later. The previous evening’s warnings about the monster winds were being all but dismissed by many homeowners by 11 p.m. who said there wasn’t a whisper of a breeze. Dogs that were outside at the time sensed something was coming, however, and began a chorus of howling about midnight.

Turns out they were alerting folks to the proverbial calm before the storm.

Nanette Hosenfeld, a NWS meteorologist, explained the phenomenon: A miles-wide cell of warm high pressure met up with a similar-sized cell of a cold, low pressure front, except they were turning in an unnatural pattern and moving in a rare south-to-west direction. The motion twisted and turbocharged accompanying gusts that sped out of the canyons like separate polar express trains, but moving west, creating a wake of wind a thousand Space Shuttle launches couldn’t achieve.

“By the time they hit the valley they were reaching incredible speeds,” Hosenfeld said.

As the winds really got going, there was no time for headshaking at the power. Calls were coming in to dispatching centers throughout the high deserts of the Mountain West almost faster than they could answer them.

“They just seemed to go off the charts geometrically,” Bird said. “As soon as you’d handle one, three more would be waiting. At one time, I just had to raise my hands from the keyboard. I just couldn’t type fast enough, and I can type pretty fast.”

The tight-spinning clockwise and counterclockwise fronts drove winds over Utah mountains and pushed them wide and far where they ultimately conspired with the infamous Santa Ana winds in California and caused high-level grief before they died down.

The “freakishly powerful” winds, as the Los Angeles Times called the storm, littered the regions with broken bits of everything from tree limbs, to power polls, to unearthed fencing, to hundreds of semi-truck trailers.

The California Highway Patrol emergency command center reported that in Pasadena, 60—mostly elderly and disabled people—were bused to a Red Cross shelter after a tree crashed through the roof and broke a main pipe to its emergency fire sprinkling system.

In the 26-mile radius, near Castaic, gusts of 97 mph were recorded, according a command center report issued in late December. States of emergency were declared in Pasadena, San Marino, San Gabriel, Temple City, Sierra Madre, Monrovia, Glendora, and Arcadia.

Throughout the five-state path of one of the biggest and most powerful winds ever recorded, the storm had a decidedly Scrooge (pre-enlightenment) attitude with Christmas and other holiday ornaments. From Fruit Heights, Utah, to Ventura, Calif., annual lighting, wreaths, displays of nativities on front lawns, and wintertime characters from Frosty the Snowman to Rudolph became bits of debris, picked up and hurled blocks away, or ended up piled in windrows along roadway chain link fences and freeway noise reduction walls.

Near Los Angeles, wind gusts of up to 40 mph were reported, with gusts of up to 80 mph in some canyons. Winds were so strong that Pasadena, Calif., firefighters were responding to calls of downed trees every 12 seconds.

Communications centers in Las Vegas reported winds gusting at a tame 30 mph. Mammoth Mountain's summit topped the list of high-wind areas with winds of 150 mph—equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.

The overnight windstorm reached gusts of more than 80 mph and toppled thousands of trees, causing power outages to more than 440,000 customers in Southern California, damaging homes and cars and sparking several small fires. Most victims were in the San Gabriel Valley.

Widespread gusts as strong as those of Hurricane Irene continued into Friday, Dec. 2. Dispatchers in California sent firefighters to a series of wildfires sparked by downed power lines and spread by the winds. Major stretches of freeways and highways were shutdown because of toppled trucks.

Let it blow, let it blow

The strongest winds of the day in a residential area were reported near Centerville, Utah, where gusts of 102–120 mph were noted by public safety agency wind gauges. Officially, the NWS recorded the winds at 102 mph, which put the storm into a Category 2 hurricane status and added a new mark in the record book of worst disasters in the region’s history. By the end of the day, Davis County declared a local state of emergency, with county officials estimating infrastructure damage at more than $8 million. More than 50,000 people in the five-square-mile area went to bed without even the light from a streetlamp to illuminate their homes.

Extensive damage was reported throughout Davis County. South Davis Metro Fire Chief Jim Rampton said downed power lines caused at least three house fires. One of the homes was a complete loss. No one was in the house at the time of the fire. Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who lives nearby, said the wind put a sizeable crimp in his garage door, caving it in like a paper hat. He said his neighbor’s utility trailer was pushed off the property by the "end-over-end winds.”

Many residents calling 9-1-1 said they felt like a bomb had gone off in their houses, noting a definite sound of something exploding. One resident in the lower foothills said he’d called 9-1-1 when “something blew up upstairs,” later finding shards of glass the size of an arrowhead impeded a quarter inch into an upstairs bedroom wall.

The winds were likened to Utah’s one and only legitimate tornado that touched down in the heart of Salt Lake City about 14 miles south of where the big winds hit Dec. 1. The F2 tornado hitting the city in 1999 killed one person on its two-mile, 20-minute spree through the historic home district of downtown through the campus of the state Capitol, ripping up dozens of trees that had been planted by the state’s original settlers, before dissipating.

Spinning through shift rotation

On the morning of Dec. 1, three graveyard shift dispatchers were on duty in Farmington: Lance Jacobs, Amanda Henderson, and Tiffany Hess. They were heads-up about the gusts but had no idea that starting at about 2 a.m. and continuing for the next 10 hours life outside was going to be off the charts.

As the day shift personnel arrived at work, Bird wrote a week later in an assessment of the event to the sheriff’s office, it was obvious from the bluster of call activity inside the center that the winds outside were in high gear. “Phone traffic was overwhelming and constant,” he said.

The activity was at such a pace that although duties were being handed over at the four consoles, there wasn’t time to actually log day shift staff off the system.

With only three dispatchers scheduled to come in, Jacobs, the graveyard shift supervisor, offered to stay until a fourth arrived.

Calls came pouring in at more than 300 per hour. Norvelle stepped in to handle calls for dispatching wreckers to semi and vehicle rollovers, most of which had been knocked over by the single gust that was clocked unofficially at 120 mph. Bird took police and medical; Dyer handled fire department calls.

Amy Bruch and Lori Boucher from the swing shift came in to help relieve some of the workload. Call levels were not only far beyond any expectation, “they were beyond imagination for a center of our size,” Bird said.

“Our radios were getting so overloaded that the civil deputies assisted by dispatching calls using cell phones just to try to cut down the radio traffic,” Bird continued, noting that the heavy winds seemed to blow away any notions of territoriality or jurisdiction questions. “Everybody was there to help everybody else in any way they could; I was proud just to see that and be part of that. I think that is the key reason things went as well as they did.”

Other things were going right too: Not a single death or major injury was reported.

“With all that debris flying around, and trees falling on homes and power lines coming down, I still can’t believe no one was seriously hurt; it’s just unheard of,” Norvelle said.

As things rattled and came undone outside—lights over a nearby parking lot for a new shopping center 100 yards to the north were bent skyward and one of the eight-foot microwave dishes on the call center’s main communication tower was moved several inches off its position—no communications were lost as a result.

Wind was also peeling shingles off the communications center roof and a heavy pull-down door over one of the vehicle entrances dropped and “was still flopping around like a chicken with its head cut off when I pulled in to park that morning,” Norvelle said.

Up to speed and then some

During the 10 hours the winds were extreme, 1,373 calls were taken, generating 615 law and fire incidents. Calls were answered in less than 10 seconds 88% of the time, and 96.4% in less than 20 seconds.

After dispatchers completed the shift and for days after, first-responder agencies all made a point of calling Norvelle to thank the dispatchers for what was a nearly seamless handling of one of the worst disasters in the region’s history.

Along with the strength of the winds, the storm swath was surprisingly narrow, at least through the Utah portion. At communications centers just a few miles north and south it was business as usual, and they called during the height of the winds volunteering to do what they could.

Norvelle said traffic was already limited to emergency-only calls; situation update calls were not taken, and even having extra personnel splitting call traffic under those circumstances “means you, in effect, just doubled your problem.”

There were the occasional “When is the wind going to stop?” calls, plus multiple calls from semi-truck drivers who wanted to know when the freeway was going to reopen.

The event was difficult and the most draining anyone at the center can remember, expect perhaps for the tanker truck rollover in 1990 that exploded and melted a section of I-15 freeway and the almost apocalyptic fog-induced multiple-car collision in 2000, Bird said.

“That’s the worst one of all,” Bird recalled. “This was easily the second-worst for me. But this is the only one that just completely wrung me out. When I got home, I just sat in a chair and stared at the wall. After about a half hour my wife said, ‘Aren’t you at least going to take your coat off?’”