Tuesday, Jul 23 2013 12:00 AM

Pen in Hand: The Great Flood of March 1983

Related Photos

A partially excavated pickup truck still lies mired in sand in front of a lake that formed on the east end of Highline Road. I think the "For Sale" sign was already in the truck window before it became stuck! Photo by Wini Hammond Hurst

A view from the other direction, looking east on Highline Road towards Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road. Photo by Wini Hammond Hurst.

One day this was an easement road that had been in use for more than 50 years, the next day it looked like this. Photo by Wini Hammond Hurst.

Brite Creek totally severed Old Town Road when a culvert became overwhelmed with storm debris. Photo by Wini Hammond Hurst.

An eroded gully alongside Banducci Road right in front of Brite Lake could have swallowed a school bus. Photo by Wini Hammond Hurst.

Another washed-out portion of Old Town Road, looking west at the White Feather Ranch. Photo by Wini Hammond Hurst.

I was recently sorting through photos that my mother had stored in a beautiful cedar chest that her brother, my Uncle Hank, made for her during his senior year of high school in 1936. My Ma passed away in August of last year and my sister brought me the contents of the cedar chest, and among them was a small packet of photos that Mom had taken in March of 1983. She took the photos while driving around with me in my 1971 Pontiac Firebird (which I still have!) while we looked at the damage caused by the heaviest March rains ever recorded in the Tehachapi Mountains.

It was the year after I graduated from Tehachapi High and I was working fulltime at the Tehachapi News, and I was taking black and white photos of the flooding for the paper and I asked my Ma if she wanted to come along. She was always up for an outing so we drove around to survey all the destruction, and she snapped some shots with her little point-and-shoot camera. The images aren't very high resolution, but they will awaken some memories of residents who lived here at the time, and give newer residents an idea of magnitude of the storms.

The rains started out promisingly that season, but nothing dramatic: we had 2.47 inches of rain in November of 1982, and another 3.13 inches of precipitation in December, some of it in the form of snow. January of 1983 continued the pattern, with 3.55 inches of precipitation, some rain and some snow. February was yet another month of moisture, with 2.41 inches, but not exceptional. By that time, the winter total was up 11.56 inches, which was about our yearly average, and there were still another couple of months remaining in the "probable storm" season, so it had shaped up to be a good wet year. People were already speculating that it would be a great wildflower year, because the moisture had arrived steadily and there hadn't been any mid-winter dry spell as there is during some years.

Then March arrived. In that month alone, the Tehachapi area averaged another 11.59 inches of rain, more than doubling what the past four months had produced. The results in some places were catastrophic. Road after road was damaged by torrential rains and the subsequent flooding, especially the smaller, older back roads.

Highline Road was buried in sand in places, and a Tehachapi resident nearly drowned when her Volkswagen Beetle was swept up in the churning lake at the low spot in the road about a mile west of the intersection with Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road. A pickup truck was also half buried in the mud. Proctor Lake, near Monolith, filled with runoff and had water for more than a year afterwards.

Old Town Road was gouged in half by Brite Creek and left totally impassable. Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road was closed for months afterwards. Bena Road was closed. Banducci Road was closed.

The worst of the flooding was associated with Caliente Creek: Caliente Creek Road was damaged in no fewer than 19 different places. Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) elder Luther Girado and his family lost their home and all their possessions down the creek, and their captive wolves escaped. Don Hawkins had to chain his vehicles to trees to keep them from washing away, and he and his wife had to live in their treehouse for months while they rebuilt their home in Caliente Canyon.

Residents of the Twin Oaks/ Lorraine/ Piute Mountain portions of Kern County had to use Caliente-Bodfish Road ("the Lion's Trail") for many months afterward, since Caliente Creek Road was so destroyed. The county even seriously considered abandoning the road rather than fixing it, since repair estimates ran into the millions of dollars. Lamont experienced widespread flooding from Caliente Creek as it reached the San Joaquin Valley floor.

A dirt access road that my family had used to turn on the pump at our well since 1939 vanished overnight. Tehachapi kids had used the road, which was a couple of hundred yards long through tall rabbitbrush with a circular turnaround at the end, as a party place for decades -- I used to find vintage beer cans and old bottles there. We used the road one day to drive up and turn on the pump, and two days later it had become a sandy, eroded gully six feet deep with only a few traces that there had ever been a road there.

It was in 1983 that most of us heard the term "El Nino Year" for the very first time, since there was catastrophic flooding all over California. It still stands as the wettest year on record in the Tehachapi Mountains, and in many other areas as well. In later years, particularly in 1991 and 1995, the term "March Miracle" was used to describe wetter than average months of March that saved the state from drought following dry winters, but in 1983, no one was calling that March "a miracle." More like a monster.

Luckily, despite all the property damage and lasting inconvenience, no one in the Tehachapi Mountains lost their life in the March storms, and eventually all the roads were repaired. The Tehachapi Watershed Project, including Blackburn and Antelope Canyon dams, was later constructed which should prevent a repeat of much of the flooding that occurred along Highline Road and the eastern portion of the Tehachapi Valley.

The flooding of 30 years ago was unforgettable, and there are many personal stories of harrowing incidents and near-misses during those incredibly rainy days. Thanks to a little collection of snapshots that my Mom took while exploring with her teenage son, we have some color images to go along with the black-and-white ones that I took.

Have a good week.

JON HAMMOND has written for the Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to:

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