At 5:46 p.m. on Saturday, September 5, the National Weather Service issued a severe weather warning for northeastern San Diego County, near Borrego Springs. On the Weather Channel, the news-crawl bulletin was repeated over and over for about an hour and a half at the bottom of the TV screen. When the message would repeat, emergency alert tones would sound for a few seconds. The message did not appear on any other TV or cable channel.
The bulletin read, “Very heavy rain from a thunderstorm producing flash flooding near Ocotillo Wells. Locations in the warning include but are not limited to Ocotillo Wells. Flash flooding is likely along Old Kane Springs Road...Split Mountain Road...and portions of Highway 78. Additional thunderstorms developing near Borrego Springs may also become capable of producing flash flooding within the next hour. Precautionary/preparedness actions… Do not drive your vehicle into areas where the water covers the roadway. The water depth may be too great to allow your car to cross safely. Move to higher ground. Most flood deaths occur in automobiles. Never drive your vehicle into areas where the water covers the roadway. Flood waters are usually deeper than they appear.”
The warning also gave longitude and latitude coordinates for affected areas. At 6:20 p.m., I asked the California Highway Patrol if they received the National Weather Service warning. The dispatcher said they usually only get alerts of major events such as an earthquake or tsunami warning. For weather issues, they depend on their units in the field to report what’s going on. He said that, so far, there had been no report of campground evacuations or road closures in the desert area.
Around 6:30 p.m., I phoned two hotels in the area. Both front-desk clerks reported heavy rain in the previous hour but it had stopped by then. I asked how someone living in the desert would know there was a severe weather warning. Veronica at the Borrego Springs Resort said, “We pretty much [know] just by looking up and seeing it.”
In the reported storm epicenter, I spoke with a firefighter at the Ocotillo volunteer fire station. He reported they had some lightning and a little rain, but that only heavy cloud cover was overhead. By 7:30 p.m., the weather service had canceled the warning and reported that the thunderstorms had diminished and moved into Imperial County.