D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e  August 2005

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The Big Blow

Remember the hurricane back in '73?

As the air begins its long, slow, steady cooling process, and cold upper-air currents meet with hot air pockets closer to the ground, conditions increasingly ripen for weather disturbances. Most of the time, these disturbances result in classic New Mexico thunderstorms, with their angry black billowing heads rearing up into the stratosphere and stinger-like lances of white-hot lightning probing the ground. A substantial amount of rainfall can quickly inundate the dry topography's scaly surface, resulting in roiling chocolate-brown arroyos of rainwater. But sometimes, the results can be entirely different, as they were a fateful few days in 1973.

Few residents of sufficient memory exist to recall the most peculiar weather phenomenon to ever strike the placid southern half of dry, dusty New Mexico that year, and even fewer recall the utter aplomb with which New Mexico's first hurricane was greeted. Before the 24-hour onslaught of meteorological minutiae of the Weather Channel or round-the-clock network news, hurricanes were a much more subtle affair. That is probably why few recall the bizarre unlikelihood of the hurricane that formed seemingly overnight at the mouth of the Rio Grande at the southernmost tip of Texas (state motto: "Not as Scrubby as You Might Think"). Flying up the Rio Grande faster than a cop on the way to a donut shop, the gigantic storm began building great strength, and was given the unlikely name "Concha" by the National Institute of Hurricane Naming & Truck Driving School.

When New Mexicans awoke on the morning of Aug. 25, 1973, they noticed a band of dark clouds on the horizon as they filled their dogs' water dishes, jump-started their pickups, and rattled off to their jobs or the local diner for huevos rancheros and black coffee. Later in the morning, as the sun was uncharacteristically blotted out by Spielberg-class clouds, radios across the southern part of New Mexico began crackling with the news that Concha was on her way, and this wasn't going to be your average gully washer.

In time-honored tradition, much discussion was had prior to the advent of any actual action. Farmers and ranchers gathered in impromptu cliques between their pickups, kicking the dust and bemoaning yet another reason why theirs was the crappiest profession in the world. Elected officials had emergency meetings to go over the emergency preparedness plans, only to discover that no such plans had ever been discussed or drafted, and that the best course of action was to approve a few zoning variances and go home. Neighbors made plans with neighbors to go home to their respective ol' ladies after one more beer.

As the fateful day progressed, the seriousness of the situation started to take hold. The winds began to increase, and due to the Gobi-like aridity of the land, huge walls of windborne dirt and dust began to choke the air. Vision was reduced to a few feet, and whatever few flakes of native paint remained on area vehicles was quickly sandblasted away. At this point, most hardened New Mexicans went ahead and closed the front door, and changed the calendars in the mistaken belief that it was actually springtime again. If this was a hurricane, residents reasoned, it holds no charms over an average day in April.

But then things got bad. The clouds opened up, releasing a natural phenomenon known outside of the state as "rain." This involved a steady flowing of an unnatural mixture of oxygen and hydrogen molecules that caused the earth to take on a semi-liquid state, and accumulations of this substance were accumulating in low-lying areas, scaring the children and dogs. This fluid came nonstop for days, promoting a sickening hue of green to manifest itself on the land. Many locals found that those flappy metal things at the bottom of their windshields were handy for clearing the glass when driving, although most of the rubber had been vaporized into desert ozone years ago. Many citizens were greatly distressed to learn that flat roofs, while easy to walk on, weren't all that good at repelling moisture.

A diehard people, New Mexicans quickly embraced the concept of a Hurricane Party, although many adaptations had to be made. For example, the men couldn't go outside and drink by a fire, which greatly saddened them. If there were any aspirations to have a piñata for the children, such notions were quickly dispelled by the thought of clumps of papier-mache falling to the ground and discolored bits of candy whisked away by muddy torrents. But area kitchens were alive with the smell of chile, tortillas and cakes, and the men could ring the kitchen tables, talking about football and the weather.

Concha's energy, while substantial, was frittered away on a populace unimpressed. There were no runs on plywood, which is way more expensive than scraps of lumber lying around the backyard, and bottled water was not in demand, as residents were wisely stocked up on beer and Pepsi. There weren't too many trees to blow over, and the rain settled the dust for a few weeks. After a week or so, one of the major networks, having heard about a hurricane in a most unlikely place, sent a single reporter out to do a follow-up report on the storm. He met with a lot of shrugs and dismissive gestures, as if few knew what he was talking about. Puzzled, he knew that the people of Florida were always complaining about the damage of hurricanes, and gave him much better sound bites. He concluded that Concha probably wasn't even a hurricane, and that the poor bumpkins of isolated southern New Mexico were deluded into thinking a big thunderstorm was something as cataclysmic as a hurricane. He packed up his microphones and beat
feet back to New York.

If only he had taken a moment to look back, the reporter may have changed his mind. For as his pre-emission-regulations sedan sped off down the highway to the El Paso airport, he passed what was a clear indicator of what had happened. There, on the side of the road, crudely painted on the face of a sun-faded billboard for a long-defunct bank, was a message for Concha, left by an unimpressed survivor of the storm's fury.

"La vez proxima, trae sus hermanas, Concha." The natives were not impressed.

And if all this had really happened in 1973, I am sure nobody would have noticed except for the coyotes, which would have enjoyed some unusually fat rabbits that winter.


Until the monsoon season blows over, you can find Henry Lightcap hunkered down in Las Cruces.


Desert Exposure