Sign up for our free newsletter
Free Oakland news, written by Oaklanders, delivered straight to your inbox three times a week.
The wind had been whipping around the Athol Plaza tennis court homeless camp, just east of Lake Merritt, for more than 12 hours straight by noon on Tuesday.
Overnight, rain tarps had flown off the tents people sleep in, chairs had slid around the court, and a tall set of shelves had toppled over.
Tytiania, one of the residents, said she usually tidies up at the court frequently, and especially on Tuesdays when city garbage collectors come by. But “it would have been pointless if I would have cleaned up today,” she said. “It’s like Hurricane Katrina came through here.”
Starting late Monday evening, as offshore weather brought extreme winds throughout Northern California—at levels unheard of in January, according to the Oakland Fire Department—OFD urged residents to “stay inside” to avoid falling trees and power lines, and elevated fire risk. For thousands of Oaklanders, though, indoor shelter is elusive or impossible to come by. The pandemic has reduced previous winter shelter options, and crashing indoors with friends or family poses its own health risk.
“Everyone out here is in survival mode,” said Tiara D. Swearington, another Athol Plaza resident. “I’m sure if you asked anyone out here if they’d choose to be indoors, they’d say yes.” But she said she’d come to terms with the wind that had wreaked havoc on her home: “Complaining is not gonna stop the wind from blowing.”
Several miles to the east, at the 77th Avenue homeless camp, Derrick Soo said that, in terms of natural phenomena, wind is unhoused people’s greatest foe. “With the rain, at least you can cover up,” he said early Tuesday afternoon. “Wind is relentless.”
Soo has rigged up a sturdy shelter for himself along the stretch of 77th Avenue, near the Coliseum, where numerous people live in hand-built structures and tents. He has a thick tarp covering his area, secured by bungee cords and heavy-duty tape. But next to him, a thin piece of plastic that looked like it had been chewed up fluttered in the still-strong wind.
“The wind just shreds light tarps,” he said. Most of Soo’s neighbors can’t afford to replace damaged items, but Soo is well-known by advocates who collect used goods for unhoused residents. He said he’s often an intermediary, storing donated tents until there’s an emergency.
Soo said one element of the wind doesn’t bother him: the noise. He slept through all the rustling and clattering because he used to live right under the nearby BART tracks, where he learned to ignore the constant sound of massive trains rumbling past.
Another resident of the camp, Little Feather, said the wind freaked out both her and her small dog. She ended up calling her boss, whose house she cleans, to ask if she could stay in his spare room. Thankfully, he said yes. But she felt she could survive the night if necessary. “I’m a Native American, so I have willpower,” said Little Feather, who grew up on a reservation in Colorado. “I’m a survivor.”
But she was thrilled to hear that the wind advisory was set to expire at 6 p.m. Tuesday. “Woo!” she said, yelling out her relief.
Thankfully, it looks like Oakland will avoid any fires related to this bout of wind, said the Oakland Fire Department’s Michael J. Hunt, chief of staff and spokesperson. But city staffers have been busy responding to calls about safety hazards throughout the city over the past day. Dispatchers for the 311 line had received 54 wind-related calls for service by 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, including 32 for downed trees and 19 for downed limbs. Streets from the hills to the flatlands were covered in debris.
The weather Monday was unprecedented, and concerning, Hunt said.
“Eighty degrees in January is alarming at minimum, and scary when combined with high wind potential,” he said. Hunt said OFD appreciated the “heads up” from the National Weather Service, which issued a wind warning that alerted fire crews to be on standby and change the fire danger signage Monday.
Monday’s conditions would have prompted a red flag warning for high fire danger if it were late summer, Hunt said, but there has been just enough rain and humidity in recent weeks to reduce the risk this winter.
Even so, “it’s still very, very dry. Any spark could move extremely quickly,” he said.
Reported by Natalie Orenstein, photographed by Amir Aziz.