Writer in Residence: When the Rain Comes
Relishing monsoon season in a land of persistent drought
On my way to the National Weather Service office in Las Vegas, my Uber driver told me he’d received a flash flood warning on his phone. The sky was bright, with a cluster of clouds building to the south. Eric worked part-time as a high school basketball coach, part time as an Uber driver, and today was his granddaughter’s first day of school. I asked if he’d take off early. He shook his head. “I don’t stop driving. I know where the dips are.” The worst, he said, was the Linq parking garage, which was built on top of a wash that drained into Lake Mead. During floods, the lot turns into a river.
The night before, the Strip itself was a river. I saw the usual videos: casino ceilings leaking, tiles falling and roofs caving in, water rushing down the gutters of Las Vegas Boulevard. Older videos surfaced, too: A man playing slots, nonplussed as water cascaded in front of his face; cars leaving wakes in flood water, as though speed boats. People sprinting barefoot through fast-flowing urban streams, trying to skim the surface. I’d spent the evening at a friend’s house, recruiting others to stand outside with me in the downpour and watch lightning stitch across the purple sky.
Monsoon season is my favorite time here. I love the smell of creosote after rain, its petrol sweetness mixing with the humid musk of damp dirt. I love witnessing the earth’s sudden transformation from brown to green. Dormant springs fill with cool water. Cacti swell. Evening light shifts, the dimming sun refracting off clouds and throwing distant showers into relief. I can spend hours sitting on my patio, watching the sky darken. The anticipation of rain is a delight in itself. For people like me who grew up in the Southwest’s mega-drought, or who’ve spent the last twenty years here, rain is a rare and precious event, a scarcity that reminds us of our region’s uncertain future. During monsoon season in Las Vegas, rain falls hard and fast. Then it’s gone. Anxiety returns. We don’t know when it will rain again.
Monsoon season is also extremely dangerous. Six inches of moving water can knock down an adult. One foot can displace a car. For the city’s storm drain dwellers, monsoons are deadly. At least one person, presumably unhoused, had died in a flooded ditch as of August 29. These storms are vital to the Southwest, providing needed water to delicate and parched ecosystems, but in recent years, the seasons have been erratic. Last year, 2022, saw one of Las Vegas’ wettest monsoon seasons in decades; for years before that, hardly any rain fell in the summer. This year, the monsoon season was off to a late start, recording below-average rainfall. Experts attribute the extremes, in part, to climate change.
By the end of the week, the damage was evident. Tropical storm Hilary washed out roads on Mount Charleston, and, as of this writing, residents still didn’t have access to potable water. All roads in the Mojave National Preserve were closed. Death Valley logged its rainiest day ever.
I WANTED TO learn about the people who tracked monsoons for the public, the people responsible for sending warnings and alerting the airport, whose predictions stopped others from hiking and driving, and probably saved lives. I’d started following the National Weather Service on Twitter around the time I moved here, two years ago. They posted frequent updates about storms, photos and typologies of clouds, and occasional meteorological jokes. I asked, twice, if I could shadow the forecasters during the much-anticipated Hurricane Hilary, but their media guy wouldn’t allow it. “We’re not very used to working with tropical storm systems down here,” he told me, and the results could be catastrophic. I’d have to settle for the next-best thing: Normal monsoon operations.
When I arrived at the office, located on a quiet road dotted with business parks, a gym, and a Goodwill, five men were hunched around their computers, topographical maps and colorful pixelated storm systems open on dozens of screens. Phones and computers beeped with notifications; occasionally, someone would call the office to ask a question. Las Vegas police often wanted to know the temperature in certain parts of town, usually because a child or dog was left in a hot car, Clay, a senior weather forecaster with a slight Southern drawl, told me, frowning.
During that afternoon’s rotation, Sam, the newest guy of the group, was on radar, issuing flash flood warnings like the one my Uber driver received. Chris was on social media, monitoring information and posting updates. Clay was backup on radar, checking to see if the pentagons Sam had drawn around flash flood areas seemed accurate. Marc was in charge of alerting the airports to weather changes; they had a direct line to Harry Reid. Stan would launch the weather balloon later in the afternoon, then take over for Marc.
“We’re starting to pick up a little today, but nothing too major going on,” Stan said, pointing to a radar screen showing a cluster of green, yellow, and orange masses hovering in the Sandy Valley area, where Sam had issued a flash flood warning until 4:30 that afternoon. Stan had been at the National Weather Service in Las Vegas for 20 years and used to fly through the eyes of hurricanes in Florida. He first became interested in forecasting during his childhood in Pennsylvania. In 1985, when he was in high school, Tropical Storm Gloria ripped through the mid-Atlantic. “I was walking home from school that day and came across floodwaters and thought, oh, this isn’t good,” he said. When he arrived home, his house was inundated. “The first floor down had to be entirely replaced.”
His phone chirped. “I think it was just a thank you,” Stan said after reading a message. “I chatted about that cell up over at Lee Canyon earlier, that there might be lightning strike or two, but I don’t think there ended up being any. There’s another cell going up northwest to Red Rock.”
“Sam’s on that,” Clay said.
"What’s a cell?” I asked.
“A storm,” Stan said.
“Sorry, we speak fluent jargon around here,” Clay said. He’d been in the business for 30 years. The thing about the weather, he told me, is that it affects every single person on the planet in one way or another. That’s why he liked the job. He grew up in Louisiana and had worked across the country, though “nothing will ever beat Action Jackson, Mississippi,” he said, recalling a time when the city saw a tornado and snowfall within days of each other.
Over the course of the afternoon, Clay and Stan showed me many digital maps. Maps of the region’s streams and washes, which link the basins, drawn with squiggly blue lines, are a code to understanding the hydrology of Las Vegas. Maps of temperature, wind, total rainfall. Maps predicting storms over the next week. Storms are dynamic, and can shift in direction and intensity quickly, I learned when Stan and I briefly left the office to fill up the weather balloon. I took a photo of dark clouds roiling around Summerlin, and gaped as the balloon grew to the size of a golf cart. Ten minutes later, a new storm was brewing to the south.
“If you can stay long enough, we might have an opportunity to look at something here in the valley,” Clay said, directing my attention to a map of the Jean Dry Lakebed. The question was whether the storm would strengthen as it crested a ridgeline; if so, it’d likely hit Henderson with heavy rain, and then, Las Vegas.
This is what I was here for: To see forecasters in action as a storm unfolded. Mine was a Hollywood image of their work: men rushing around, alarm bells ringing, adrenaline high, a geekier version of reporters during a breaking news event. I was projecting my own childlike excitement onto the office. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved rain and lightning and wind, any ripple in the air a contrast to the blue skies in my home of Southern California. The electricity of the atmosphere always seemed to burrow in my own body, delivering new energy to me. “It’s why we get into the business,” the media guy had told me when I begged him to let me visit during the hurricane.
In reality, the office was calm, and the forecasters spoke in low tones, with their weather jargon and encyclopedic knowledge of the valley’s infrastructure, about what areas were most likely to flood. In a measured voice, Stan asked Clay to stick around an hour longer, to monitor what might happen in Las Vegas.
“Rain gauge is up to .55,” Sam said, referring to a measuring device near Jean, where the storm was developing.
“Not bad, not bad at all,” Clay said. “How long did that take?”
“Within the last 30 minutes,” Sam said.
“What I’m looking for is heavy rain, maybe a half an inch or more, and it comes fast,” Clay told me. Of course, it depended where the rain fell. Water would spread out across a dry lakebed with little damage, but would inundate a place like the Strip, where rain slips over asphalt and concrete, cornered by curbs and buildings. Drought, too, had made desert soils hard and compact, causing rainwater to slide off the surface.
I had a flight out of Harry Reid in two hours, so I was particularly interested in the storm’s development. Stan called the airport to warn of strong winds. “Is that the call that’s going to delay my flight?” I said.
THE NUMBERS TICKED up. Point 63 in 30 minutes. Point 67. Sam debated putting out a flash flood warning for Henderson. “There are a lot of areas in Old Henderson that don’t drain especially well,” Clay said. They looked at other storms, another one moving north. Clay walked to the parking lot to roll his windows up, and I was so fixated on the screens that I didn’t notice the storm outside. Rain lashed. Trees whipped in the wind. “I can verify thunder at the office,” Clay said, grinning.
A familiar sensation of relief welled within me: Rain, finally. I felt the urge to dart outside like I used to as a kid, when I’d play hide and seek under dripping leaves. It had been an unusually wet year, and Nevada was no longer in a state of extreme drought. But July was the hottest July in Las Vegas history. It was the hottest July globally. I knew the relief wouldn’t last.
I wanted to stay longer, to see out the storm, but my departure time was approaching, and as far as I knew, my flight wasn’t canceled. I bid the forecasters goodbye and left the office. Outside, the asphalt was slick, and trees were bending. I sprinted through heavy rain, into the monsoon.
Meg Bernhard is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. Her book on wine and power was published by Bloomsbury in June.