Tuesday, April 16, 2002 Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal

SEEING IS BELIEVING: Gusts send dust flying

High winds close airport and keep emergency crews scrambling


A fierce windstorm tore across a wide swath of Southern
Nevada Monday, paralyzing air traffic for two hours,
capsizing a houseboat on Lake Mead, knocking a gasoline
tanker off the road, and shutting down parts of U.S. Highway
95 where visibility was reduced to zero by blowing dust.

"It appears to be the worst we've had in some time," said
National Weather Service meteorologist Barry Pierce.

Gusts were routinely clocked at speeds above 60 mph
throughout the Las Vegas Valley, with one recorded at 90 mph
several miles south of the Strip.

The extreme wind conditions kept emergency responders busy
with fires, power outages and accidents covering an area
from Indian Springs to Boulder City to Lake Mead's Echo Bay
and as far away as Lincoln County and Mohave County, Ariz.

Several motorists were injured in wind-related accidents,
but the daylong barrage of southwesterly gusts caused no

American Red Cross officials said they responded to three
Nevada counties where neighborhoods sustained wind damage.

In Lincoln County, some mobile homes were knocked off their
foundations and officials were preparing to declare a state
of emergency, according to a Red Cross statement.

In Clark County, roof damage was reported at a housing
complex in North Las Vegas, requiring evacuation of 60
senior citizens. In Nye County, a Pahrump resident reported
the roof was blown off his mobile home.

Not since a localized gust estimated to be more than 80 mph
from a July 1994 thunderstorm toppled the Las Vegas Hilton
marquee -- billed as the tallest free-standing sign in the
world -- have winds wreaked such havoc around the valley.

"I've been here 11 years, and it's definitely the strongest,
most widespread wind event I've seen," said National Weather
Service spokesman Brian Fuis.

He said the strong winds were driven by a "very strong and
very cool low pressure" system that began moving southward
from the Gulf of Alaska a few days ago.

Besides generating winds, the system dropped temperatures by
about 30 degrees from the 95-degree reading Sunday at
McCarran International Airport that tied a record for April
14 set in 1947.

Sunday also registered the warmest low temperature on record
for April 14 in Las Vegas at 66 degrees, breaking the
64-degree mark set in 1955.

Gusts exceeding 80 mph were recorded in Apex, northeast of
the Las Vegas Valley, weather service officials said.

A 91-mph gust at 2 p.m. was recorded at an unofficial
station at Wheeler's Las Vegas RV, seven miles south of the
Strip at Lake Mead Drive and Las Vegas Boulevard.

At the official monitoring station at McCarran, a peak gust
of 59 mph was clocked at 2:45 p.m. in the midst of a
2-hour-long halt to air traffic arriving and departing from
the airport.

McCarran spokeswoman Hilarie Grey said low visibility during
the strong wind event prompted the Federal Aviation
Administration to put a hold on incoming and outgoing air
traffic from 1:20 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.

"If you can see the airport, we're doing better than we were
an hour ago," she said by telephone at 3:45 p.m.

At the time air traffic was stopped, Grey said, 25 planes
were waiting to take off and a dozen approaching commercial
aircraft were diverted to other airports. Six were sent to
Los Angeles International, five to Ontario Airport in
California, and one went to Phoenix.

Rhonda Oldham, FAA manager at the McCarran tower, described
the conditions as "pretty bumpy."

"The winds were gusting up to 55 knots. When it gets that
strong, they don't want to land," she said.

A Nellis Air Force Base spokesman said a tour plane trying
to land at the North Las Vegas airport declared an emergency
because of strong cross winds and poor visibility and landed
instead at the base.

Another small jet destined for McCarran was diverted to the
Nellis base, where Air Force planes were not flying because
of the safety hazard, said Master Sgt. Richard Covington, a
base spokesman.

He said a helicopter team from the 66th Rescue Squadron,
however, was dispatched at 2 p.m. to a remote part of Lake
Mead to retrieve two stranded boaters.

The two were brought back to the base and taken to a
hospital, but they declined treatment.

Covington and Clark County Fire Department spokesman Bob
Leinbach said the two were among seven aboard a houseboat
that capsized in the Echo Bay part of Lake Mead.

Boaters in the area picked up the other five, they said.

About the same, a gasoline tanker rig blew over on
southbound Interstate 15 near the Henderson cutoff, leaving
the driver with minor injuries, said Nevada Highway Patrol
spokesman Trooper Alan Davidson.

The interchange at I-15 and state Route 160 was shut down as
a result of the tanker rollover.

A stretch of U.S. 95 between Boulder City and Searchlight
was closed for most of the day beginning at 10 a.m. because
of poor visibility caused by blowing dust, Davidson said.

He said another major traffic accident blamed on visibility
problems occurred one mile south of the Nevada-California
state line in the northbound lanes of I-15.

Earlier in the day, Leinbach said Clark County emergency
crews responded to a collision involving two pickup trucks
near Indian Springs. Three people were injured and
transported to Las Vegas hospitals, he said.

For much of the day, the Stratosphere stood like a ghost
shrouded by a dense cloud of dust.

Construction sites were shut down as dust conditions reached
dangerously unhealthful levels and water trucks were sent to
spray development sites, according to the Clark County Air
Quality Management Department.

Four local radio stations were silenced as wind disrupted
transmission systems for up to an hour.

There were numerous reports of downed power lines, toppled
trees and bus shelters getting blown over.

Power outages were reported in Indian Springs, Blue Diamond,
Jean and Cold Creek.

High winds also damaged a fee booth station and forced
Bureau of Land Management officials to close Red Rock
Canyon's 13-mile scenic drive.

The scenic loop is expected to open at 6 a.m. today with the
Visitor Center opening at 8 a.m., according to a BLM

Today, winds are expected to be between 15 mph and 25 mph.