Bakersfield dust storm

A road sign is covered by dust after Kern County was hit with a giant dust storm that killed three and resulted in $40 million in damage in 1977. 

The dust was blinding.

Carried by powerful gale force winds, dirt piled onto interstates, buried cars and trapped thousands of motorists along Interstate 5 and Highway 58.

Howling winds ripped roofs off houses and stores, knocked out windows, blew in front doors and forced hundreds of people from farming communities south of Bakersfield to flee for shelter.

The force of the wind was so mighty that it sand blasted the paint off cars, pitted chrome bumpers and carved up fence posts.

“It looked like someone dropped an A-bomb on Bakersfield,” Dick Powers, a chief pilot for Continental Telephone Company told The Californian in 1977.

Some children thought it was the end of the world. Instead, it was one of the worst storms in the county’s history — one that conjured up comparisons to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s from which so many fled to Bakersfield to escape.

Forty years ago this week, that monumental dust storm swept into Kern County, leaving a path of destruction in its wake.

The storm, which began Dec. 19, 1977 and lasted three days, left five dead and caused more than $34 million in damages. Gusts up to 192 miles per hour stripped 25 million tons of soil from grazing land and row crops — enough to fill more than 1.6 million standard dump trucks like the ones that drive up and down Highway 99 everyday.

The eye of the storm settled over Arvin. The dust was so thick that the town was pitch black mid-day. A now infamous photo of the storm taken from a twin-engine aircraft shows what appears to be a tidal wave of dirt reaching a height of nearly 5,000 feet moving over the rural farm town south of Bakersfield.

It was caused by an unusual intense high-pressure system over the Rocky Mountains and a low-pressure system off the California coast. Nature moved to fill the vacuum, and Kern County laid between the two pressure systems.

The weather event — which was considered a “once in a lifetime” storm and named one of the top 15 weather events of the century by the National Weather Service — closed portions of all major freeways running through Kern County, stranded motorists and knocked out power.

By the third day of the storm, news had gotten out about the devastating conditions in Kern County, and Gov. Jerry Brown had declared both Arvin and Bakersfield disaster areas.

Reports began surfacing of livestock getting buried alive, canals becoming filled with dirt and almond trees toppling, in some cases wiping out entire orchards and causing millions of dollars in economic losses.

Winds reached 88 mph in Arvin before the anemometer broke the first day of the storm, but the U.S. Geological Survey estimated gusts as fast as 192 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

By comparison, a Category 5 hurricane has sustained winds at 157 mph while an EF-5 tornado generates wind speeds in excess of 261 mph.

LeRoy Schnell, the Arvin Edison water master dispatcher, told The Californian at the time that the wind was shooting gravel through the air the size of peas.

“You’ve never seen anything like this,” he said in a Dec. 20, 1977 article.

When natural disasters strike, the aftermaths are sometimes marked with looting. That wasn’t the case in Kern County, officers told The Californian at the time, save for just a few incidents, including two juveniles who were caught running from a 7-Eleven on White Lane with “an armload of beer.”

Scores of Kern County residents who were around for the storm posted their memories on The Californian’s Facebook page, shared recollections by email and sent handwritten letters to the paper leading up to the 40th anniversary.

Michelle Corson, now a Kern County Public Health spokeswoman, was in third grade at the time in Cummings Valley when the storm hit.

“I remember we got out of school early, and being carried to the bus because the teacher was afraid to let us walk in strong winds,” Corson said. “We thought it was the end of the world!”

Aaron Reynolds, 13 at the time, remembered his mother also thinking the storm was the end of the world. And since Reynolds had it in his head that the dust storm was the rapture, he figured he’d go out with a bang.

“I grabbed my sleeping bag, made my parachute and climbed on the roof,” Reynolds recalled.

He thought he would get swept up in the wind like the Wicked Witch of the West, and to some degree, he was right. The wind did sweep him away, but all that goes up must come down. After a fleeting moment, the wind slammed him across the yard and into a fence.

“The ground broke my fall, and my wrist,” Reynolds said.

It’s a classic case of “boys will be boys,” just like Shane Goslin, who shared on Facebook that he threw his new winter coat in the air.

“Never saw it again,” he wrote. “Mom was mad.”

Ben Stinson, president of Stinson’s Office Supplies, recalled that his father had sent his entire staff home for the day when the duster began kicking up, and shortly after they received a report of a plate glass window shattering.

Stinson, then 21, crawled inside the storefront display on Baker Street to prop a plywood board up when a strong gust came in and shattered three adjacent eight-foot tall plate glass windows from the inside. Glass burst onto the sidewalk.

“If I had been standing there, I would have been dead,” Stinson said. “It was just a powerful force that shattered it, and there were large shards of glass flying in the air.”

The same thing happened at Three-Way Chevrolet on California Avenue, said Venita Sorrell Jones, who was working there at the time. The windows busted and glass burst all over the cars on the showroom floor, she recalled in a Facebook post.

“I worked at Casa De Liqores at 21st and F Street,” Michael Boyt recalled on Facebook. “The wind blew the big plate glass window in and all the others out. They went out of business right then and there.”

Michael Kovacevich, a special projects manager with the Kern County Department of Human Services, who was then 29, shared a story about his late father, John J. Kovacevich, during the storm - when the dust was so thick that it blotted out the sun, and any hope for visibility while driving:

John J. was working in Arvin when the wind kicked up. His office windows exploded inward, and he took it as his sign to head home. 

He found Tejon Road and began heading north to get to Edison Highway to get home. 

He didn't make it. 

He saw a pair of tail lights ahead of him. 

"I figured the guy knew where he was going so I decided to follow him. After about five minutes, going slowly, the road felt a lot bumpier than I remembered it," John J. Kovacevich said at the time.

Both drivers got out of their cars and looked around, surprised to find they'd both driven about 100 yards into a plowed field. 

"We made it back to Tejon and he went his way, north, but I didn't think I could make it. I turned onto Vineland and made my way to Jack and Mary Lou Thompson's house. I knocked on the door and they took me in and took damn good care of me until I thought I could make it home, which, about three hours later, I did," John J. Kovacevich concluded at the time. 

The toll the storm took on the health of Kern County residents, and those far beyond, wasn’t in all cases immediate. By the following year, though, the Kern County Public Health Services Department recorded 451 valley fever cases — a 61 percent spike over the previous year. Seven people died.

That’s because more of the Coccidioides fungal spores — which grow throughout the Southwestern United States and cause the respiratory disease when inhaled — were moving around the environment. Some cases were reported as far north as the San Francisco Bay Area, and the dust itself traveled more than 500 miles and into Oregon, according to a report written by now-retired Public Health Lab Director Ronald Talbot.

“It was tremendous,” Talbot recalled in a phone interview from Arizona, where he now resides. “We were doing 1,000 tests a week, and we’d normally been doing maybe 100 or 200 a week.”

Pamela Tarango, then 11, was among those stricken with valley fever, along with her father.

It’s unclear if she breathed in the spore before or after the wind picked her up and dropped her off in her family swimming pool, which was filled with leaves and mud.

Colleen Clasen recalled that lots of bad came out of the storm, but at least one good thing came, she said.

“I got pregnant with my firstborn,” Clasen shared on Facebook. She was born at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital Sept. 16, 1978, Clasen said, along with about 10 others whom doctors and nurses affectionately referred to as “dust storm babies.”

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

(1) comment

Bill Deaver

We were living in Tehachapi at the time and my wife started for her job at a Bakersfield bank and turned around at the Arvin Cutoff thanks to hearing wild CB traffic and meeting cars with the paint stripped off. I was court administrator in East Kern and was in Ridgecrest when I got a call from the CAO's office telling me I could send everyone home. I replied that the wind, for once, wasn't blowing on our side of the county! By the way, we've lived in East Kern for decades and the worst dust storms I've ever seen were in the Valley, probably because most of the dust out here blew away eons ago...

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