As mudslide from Grapevine gets cleaned up, experts say be ready for more

The aftermath of a mudslide on Highway 58 between Mojave and Tehachapi on Oct. 16. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)
The aftermath of a mudslide on Highway 58 between Mojave and Tehachapi on Oct. 16. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times) NYT

On the day when one of the worst mudslides in recent memory hit the Tehachapi Mountains, Scott Levin and Danielle Bond stopped for gas near the Tejon Pass, the spot where Interstate 5 begins its long descent down the Grapevine into the San Joaquin Valley.

The word from southbound motorists wasn’t good. The road ahead, they said, was blocked. There were mudslides into the northbound lanes.

Bond and Levin, on their way to Fresno for a performance with the Fresno Grand Opera, made a fateful decision. Bond turned her Volkswagen Jetta around and the duo headed back south with plans to head east on Highway 138, detour through Lancaster and come down to Bakersfield on Highway 58.

Hours later — cold, hungry and dirty — they gratefully welcomed the flatlands of the San Joaquin Valley after getting caught in high water and mudslides on their detour.

Looking back, Levin says, “it was not a very fun day.”

The rain and mud, it seemed, came from everywhere. Mudslides didn’t just close Interstate 5 near Fort Tejon, but also Highway 58 east of Tehachapi, Highway 14 near Mojave, and also affected high desert and canyon roads all around the region between Los Angeles and the Central Valley.

From Caltrans to the California Highway Patrol to the National Weather Service, it appears the Oct. 15 torrential downpours and ensuing avalanche of mud and rush of water took everyone by surprise.

This could not have been anticipated. This was a 1,000-year flood event. Rain and hail came very quickly – 4 to 6 inches per hour.

Caltrans spokeswoman Tami Conrado

“This could not have been anticipated,” says Caltrans spokeswoman Tami Conrado. “This was a 1,000-year flood event. Rain and hail came very quickly – 4 to 6 inches per hour. Despite Caltrans’ best efforts, we’re seeing storms and conditions that are out of the ordinary and difficult to prepare for.”

Cindy Bean, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford, agrees, saying there was no way to know the hillsides would not be able to absorb the rain.

California Highway Patrol officer Steve Carapia says just 15 minutes passed between getting word of heavy rains and mudslides occurring. There was no way, he says, of shutting down the roadways any quicker.

Conrado says the flash floods and mudflows hit Interstate 5 around 3:50 p.m. and the road was shut down by 4 p.m. On Highway 58, the water and mud hit around 5:45 p.m. That road was shut down at 6:07 p.m. She says Caltrans immediately notified emergency responders and mobilized equipment.

Different than past storms

Sgt. Pablo Reyna, of the CHP’s Central Division Special Projects Unit in Fresno, says past mudslides usually would cover a single lane of a highway. That lane would be shut down, and Caltrans would have the road cleared in a few hours. But having mud up to the axles of 18-wheelers and rocks and rushing water cover multiple lanes was a new experience.

On Highway 58 between Tehachapi and Mojave, Reyna says, there was light rain falling, but heavier rain in the mountains to the north. That water, he says, “has to go somewhere, and down the mountain it went and took all the mud with it.”

Says Carapia, spokesman for the CHP’s Inland Empire division: “The whole incident caught everybody by surprise ... Driving into that mudslide it looked like a war zone. It didn’t look even close to a highway. It was just one of those Mother Nature events that took us by storm.”

Along Interstate 5, several feet of mud and rocks covered both sides of the road after the powerful storm hit around 3 p.m. There were dozens of central San Joaquin Valley residents caught in the slides or the ensuing traffic jams. A few hours later, the slides hit Highway 58, stranding some 200 cars and trucks that were abandoned on the highway.

After turning around and heading east on Highway 138 just south of Gorman, Bond and Levin had no idea what was happening across the region.

They traveled east into the chaparral that marks the western edge of the Mojave Desert. But they never made it to Highway 14, the main freeway through Palmdale and Lancaster that connects with Highway 58.

They were instead relying on Google Maps, which told them to turn north onto 90th Street West. On the map, the route is a time-saver when the ultimate destination is Bakersfield or Fresno, but after starting in the scrub of the high desert, the two-lane road winds its way through gently sloping canyons dotted with power-generating wind turbines.

There was a whole bunch of dark clouds and ominous weather.

Scott Levin, en route from Southern California to perform with the Fresno Grand Opera

“There was a whole bunch of dark clouds and ominous weather,” says Levin, a bass-baritone soloist. “I said, ‘We’re going right into this.’ 

Levin and Bond weren’t the only ones on the road. Others, too, were looking for an alternate route around the closed Interstate 5. But as they headed north, and 90th Street West became Tehachapi Willow Springs Road, it became obvious that the drive was not going to be easy.

There was flash flooding and spots of high water on the road. Farther north, as the road twisted into the canyons, the water and mud began flowing over the roadway. Traffic slowed to a crawl, and Bond realized her Jetta, sitting low to the ground, was just about the worst car to be in for such a situation.

Scary moments

At that point, some cars began turning around, but Bond and Levin decided to continue north. The situation then got much worse, with mud and rocks being pushed onto the road.

Bond began to get nervous. Rain was falling, and finally, the Jetta hit a stop and was pushed toward the center of the road by a mud flow coming down a hill and hitting the car’s side.

“It’s scary to be wedged in the mud,” Levin said. “We weren’t going anywhere. Braver cars were passing us to our left.”

Bond was frantically calling 911, but they were stuck.

It wasn’t like officials didn’t know something like this was possible — just maybe not as intense and as fast as the Oct. 15 storm.

Equipment had been placed at strategic locations along the highways to handle floods, says Conrado, the Caltrans spokeswoman. In addition, pump houses had been checked and generators placed, dead vegetation removed, storm drains cleared, loose rocks removed from slopes, highway shoulders graded and new water courses created. National Weather Service flood watch alerts also had been issued earlier in the day.

“However, with this being the largest-scale storm event in eastern Kern County and eastern Sierra mountain range in 18 years, there was no way to foresee an event of this magnitude,” she says.

Jerome DeGraff, a professor in Fresno State’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, says he wasn’t surprised with what happened on either Interstate 5 or Highway 58.

With slopes above roadways, debris flowing downhill will first go into culverts, and then plug them tight. Subsequent flows will fill up the areas behind the plug, which will cause the debris flow to rise and then flow onto the highway itself. Highway drainage, he says, is designed to carry away water that accumulates next to a roadway — not debris, which has the consistency of wet cement.

“A flood is like when you spill a glass of water,” DeGraff says. “A debris flow is like when you spill a cup of ketchup.”

Conrado said Caltrans had emergency cleanup contracts in place within four hours. Motorists were alerted via electronic highway message signs and social media.

Along the Tehachapi Willow Springs Road, Levin and Bond were sitting in the middle of the roadway for 45 minutes. At that point, a guy in a Jeep came along and offered to pull the Jetta out of the mud.

The car still worked, but by then, the road was blocked to both the north, which was impassable because of mud and debris, and the south, where an 18-wheeler had jackknifed.

Levin and Bond were stuck along the road for six hours.

Eventually, a CHP officer came along, rounded up the stranded motorists and organized a caravan. The officer said the mud along the road to the north had been packed down enough to try to traverse it. Going then was imperative, the officer said, because more rain was in the forecast.

A few times, Bond had to push the Jetta’s gas pedal to the floor. Tires were spinning. But they made it, and a short time later reached Highway 58.

“It was unfortunate that we didn’t have any food or any water with us,” Levin says. “We just didn’t think of it.” Some people shared some granola bars with them.

Of the entire ordeal, Levin says “it could have been way worse. If we were alone.”

In a quirk of fate, Levin notes they reached Highway 58 west of the mudslides along that highway, which allowed Bond and Levin to head on to Bakersfield and then Fresno. If they had ignored the initial Google Maps directions and headed farther east to Highway 14, then north through Mojave, they very well could have found themselves on the wrong side of — or in — the Highway 58 mudslides.

The good news is while they missed the Thursday rehearsal, Bond and Levin were in Fresno for the actual performances Friday and Saturday.

It will likely happen again

Part of the reason for the storm’s surprise is that California doesn’t usually get deluges of such severity.

With El Niño rains predicted for the winter, however, more could be on the way. Add in parched land, dry soil, some fire-scarred areas, and officials say there is a high likelihood such incidents may happen again — and soon.

“It definitely has the potential to happen again in a different place,” says Bean, the National Weather Service meteorologist. “It’s on our radar for the winter.”

It’s a good thing this happened when it was light. If it was dark, this whole event could have been much worse.

California Highway Patrol officer Steve Carapia

With what is now known, Carapia, the CHP officer, says the public shares some responsibility to prepare for these events.

“We’ve been warned,” he says. “So for those that do drive through canyons — and we have a lot of highways that go through canyons — we need to be aware of those things prior to them happening.”

The advice: Check the operating condition of your vehicle. Check tire tread, make sure wipers are up to par, carry an emergency kit, fully charge cellphones.

“People need to keep an eye on what the weather service is saying because that’s the best defense,” says DeGraff, the Fresno State professor. “We are going to be subject to extreme weather events, but we don’t have to be, necessarily, victims.”

A body was found in an SUV buried in 6 feet of mud in the Palmdale area, but authorities are still amazed there weren’t more injuries, wrecks or fatalities from the storms that hit the mountains around Mojave, Tehachapi and the Fort Tejon areas.

“It’s a good thing this happened when it was light,” Carapia says. “If it was dark, this whole event could have been much worse.”