Local News

Wednesday, Nov 14 2007 08:37 PM

Leonel Martinez: Catastrophic dust storm left its mark

By LEONEL MARTINEZ, Californian columnist e-mail: lmartinez@bakersfield.com

I knew something bad had happened when the school bus didn't show up.

I was a 17-year-old Arvin High School student, and few things were as reliable as the bus that took me on my 45-minute trip to school every day. As the wind kicked up clouds of dust on the farm where my family lived southwest of Arvin on the morning of Dec. 20, 1977, I realized the bus would never come.

Dust storms are common in the country. With few homes and little pavement covering the earth, strong winter gusts frequently send sheets of dust billowing into the air.

But the storms were usually brief, mild and isolated. It looked like this one was something more. As the wind screamed outside, the dust clogged our nostrils even indoors. The telephone died. The television screen turned to snow. Then, the power blinked off. All our links to the outside world were severed.

What the heck was going on?

I didn't know it yet, but it was the beginning of the Southern San Joaquin Valley Wind Storm of 1977. Rated by the National Weather Service as one of California's top 15 weather events of the century, the disaster left three dead, stripped 25 million tons of soil from grazing lands alone and caused $40 million in immediate economic losses.

Winds reached an estimated 192 mph. Dust buried cars, shattered windows and killed livestock.

The storm pounded Arvin 30 years ago next month, but for me, the memory remains vivid. That morning, I only wanted to get to school. I talked my grandfather into driving me there. We hopped into his battered pickup, and the farther we drove, the more we realized that this was a different kind of storm.

In less than two miles, a curtain of dust enveloped the truck, dimming the sun. Gusts punched the pickup, and in a few minutes, we could barely see the tip of the hood. We should have turned back, of course, but I suppose my grandpa and I were both stubborn and curious. We pushed ahead.

When we got to Arvin High, I saw something that shook me: Nothing. Not a single soul walked on a campus that had bustled just the day before. The red, brick classrooms were closed, dark, empty.

Yards away, tree branches littered a deserted quad, and the air had taken on a brownish tinge like a sepia-toned picture. In the gym, a quarter-inch thick layer of dust blanketed the varnished wood floors where no one played.

My grandfather and I didn't talk much on the way home, and it was weeks before the cleanup finished and things went back to normal.

I've often pondered why I remember the wind storm so clearly when many high school memories have faded. Because it was a catastrophe, of course.

But more specifically, buses are supposed to run, schools are supposed to open, and laughing kids are supposed to play on varnished gymnasium floors. When these things happen, the world is running as it should.

Yet at any time, all of that can be swept away and the world plunged into chaos.

That's what I learned firsthand in the Wind Storm of 1977.

Leonel Martinez's column appears every other Thursday. Readers may send comments or suggestions to lmartinez@bakersfield.com or leave a voice mail at 395-7631.

Dust storm memories

Do you remember that day nearly 30 years ago? We’d love to publish your photos and memories of the havoc. Send them by Dec. 7:

• Online at Bakersfield.com/yourwords

• By mail to: The Bakersfield Californian, c/o Jennifer Baldwin, P.O. Bin 440, 1707 Eye St., Bakersfield, Calif. 93301.

Questions? Call Contributions Editor Jennifer Baldwin at 395-7568 or e-mail jbaldwin@bakersfield.com

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