man pulls pieces of fabric off a fence. A tarp hangs overhead
Cleveland Allen tears down tarps damaged by a night of extreme wind at the Athol Plaza homeless camp. Credit: Amir Aziz

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.”

close up of woman, with sober expression, staring. tent in background
Tytiania, a resident at the Athol Plaza camp, looks out at the damage caused by the high winds overnight. Credit: Amir Aziz

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.”

Pieces of tarp and fabric fly in the wind. A tent is in background.
Tarps at Athol Plaza were shredded by Monday night winds that continued into Tuesday. Credit: Amir Aziz
A tent toppled over at Athol Plaza Monday night. Credit: Amir Aziz

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.

Derrick Soo, a resident at the 77th Avenue encampment, said the residents at the end of the block are hit hardest by the wind. Credit: Amir Aziz
Tarps were shredded by overnight winds at the homeless camp directly east of Lake Merritt. Credit: Amir Aziz

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.

horizontal tree across street and sidewalk
A tree falls in Oakland. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

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.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.

Amir Aziz is a photographer and videographer from Oakland, California. Using photography as his primary medium, Amir documents life and times in his community and the rapid changes in his environment. He's covered music events and social justice movements in the U.S. and abroad for local and international publications. Before shelter-in-place, he traveled to over 10 countries producing multimedia projects juxtaposing the experiences of locals elsewhere to those in his hometown of Oakland. Amir hopes to continue to bridge the gap between African diaspora communities and oppressed groups in the world through multimedia storytelling.