At the time, I was the weathercaster for KERO-TV Channel 23, which was then the NBC affiliate. I was just hired about ten weeks before for my first television weathercasting job by then General Manager Ray Watson, and News Director Steve Talbot.
In those days, real-time weather data coming into newsrooms for TV weather presentations was scarce, save an hourly California temperature roundup from airports around the state, transmitted over the Associated Press wire. That roundup usually came in about 20-25 minutes after the observations were taken, so there was very little to work with. I often drove out to the National Weather Service office at Meadows Field to look at data, maps, and charts. Additionally, I would frequently go home for dinner between the 6PM and 11PM newscasts, to look at data, which came over an ATT Long Line circuit that was hooked up to a Bell System Model 28-D teletype, located in my utility room. That was considered 'high tech' at the time.
I would make a routine phone call to the NWS office shortly after 10PM each weekday night, to get current conditions for the 11PM show. Production constraints at the time didn't permit us to wait for the 11PM current conditions at Meadows Field. We couldn't produce any graphics during the actual newscast - they all needed to be done in advance. So, we used 10PM data.
On Monday night, December 19, 1977, weather conditions were nominal, regarding what is / was typical for that time of year. At that time that night, I recall there were scattered to broken low clouds, light north or northwest winds, temperature around 44 or so - pretty typical for December in Bakersfield. My colleagues and I delivered our 11PM newscast without difficulty. It's hard to remember all of the personnel - Leanne Kozak anchored the news; I did weather and sports (Steve Talbot did 6PM sports). Albert Saldana directed the show; Gene Greer was the Technical director; I think John Duarte ran studio camera.
Right after the newscast, we went upstairs to the newsroom to wrap things up for the night. I took a phone call from a viewer, who said that trees had just fallen across Weed Patch Highway (SR 184) in the Lamont area. I thanked him for the report, which didn't seem to jibe with the information we had from Meadows Field (which was 90 minutes old, by then). By that time of night, we didn't have a reporter / photographer on shift to check this out. As we left the studio and walked out to our cars, we knew something had changed - it was warmer, the wind shifted direction and was stronger, and the restriction to visibility was not the typical wintertime fog - there was dirt blowing around everywhere.
I spent a restless night at home, trying to get some sleep, as the wind whipped outside. Dust came into my duplex through every available crevice that faced east or south - especially around windows, and the front door. Around 4:30AM on Tuesday the 20th, the power flickered for the last time, and went out for good. I managed to receive some data on my long line circuit before it did, so I could do my morning radio shows ( I did weather broadcasts on radio stations in other parts of the state via telephone in the early morning hours - I still do). I recall the phones were still working. After that, I got a bit more sleep.
I received a call around mid-morning to come in to work at KERO - that we were going to air a continuous emergency broadcast, and preempt all regular programming. We were assembled on the set around 11:30AM - ready to go - Burleigh Smith, Leanne Kozak, Steve Talbot, and myself - then, the power went out. What occurred next was the most extraordinary cooperative effort I have ever seen in my commercial broadcasting experience. We collaborated with KBAK Ch. 29 (ABC at the time), because they were the only television station with power (Ch. 17 had been off the air for quite a while). This was the only way we could get emergency information and the story out to those who still had power. What few reporters we had between the two stations took video of arcing wires, broken windows, piles of dirt against south-facing walls - some of them even shadowed insurance agents as they surveyed client damage (I think we did a story with Bob White, an agent for Farmers - his office was up on Niles). I recall that about an hour before our 6PM news, our power went back on, and we put a newscast together. I recall Juanita Stevenson doing a story in Arvin, the hardest-hit area, about people who were homeless due to the structural damage to many homes. I recall Burleigh Smith doing a live on-set interview with Bakersfield Mayor Don Hart, concerning where people could go for shelter, if they needed it. I also drove to the NWS at Meadows Field a few times to get additional weather data.
Through all of this, few people outside of Kern County even knew this was going on. If we wanted to get something on the network, it had to be dubbed onto a 3/4-inch vidoecasette, and placed on a Greyhound bus for NBC in Burbank. This was years before satellite uplinks. But that was impossible - all highways in all directions were closed. It took a day or two for the news to get out, as highways reopened, and power was restored.
I recall only about two or three radio stations remaining on the air; I think KAFY-AM was one of them. Most people listened to AM radio then; the FM phenomenon really hadn't hit yet in a big way in Bakersfield.
The meteorological conditions (brief explanation) which caused this storm were extraordinary. Very cold, heavy air sat over the Great Basin (Nevada, Idaho), while a very strong low pressure system and cold front approached the northwest coast of California. Typically, only about a tenth of an inch (.10 - as expressed on an aneroid barometer in inches of mercury, or about 5 millibars of pressure difference on a scientific barometer) of pressure gradient force (difference in pressure between one place and the other - like say, Bakersfield and Santa Maria -with Santa Maria having the higher pressure) is all it takes to bring a northwest wind of about 10-12 mph into Bakersfield on a summer evening. That day, the pressure in Las Vegas was reading about .60 inches higher (about 20 millibars higher) than in Bakersfield. So, all that cold, heavy air traveled through Tehachapi Pass, and quickly descended downslope to the southern San Joaquin Valley, where it picked up tons of dirt. Keep in mind that we just had two years of below average precipitation in the region, and the cotton plowdown deadline had just been met by most farmers a few weeks before. Result: soil in motion. Winds in Bakersfield proper hit around 60-70 mph, and higher in the foothills to the northeast up around Morning Drive (Perhaps as high as 110mph there, according to the Kern County water Agency). An independent study done by a private meteorological firm for Southern California Edison estimated that based on structural damage to some of their high voltage towers, there may have been gusts as high as 197 mph at the base of the I-5 Grapevine area on the afternoon of the 20th.
There was little indication the night before that anything of this magnitude would occur. It is not uncommon for downslope southeasterly winds to occur in the southern San Joaquin Valley ahead of mid-latitude cyclones and cold fronts, but nothing of this magnitude has ever occurred since. (There were a couple of occurrences that were similar - I remember one in December 1986, and another in December 1987. I'd have to dig into climatological data to confirm. I just remember doing live shots on top of the Ch 17 studios on those occasions, when they were at 28th and G streets.)
I recall that January - March 1978 was fairly wet, finally. But so much dirt had blown into the Arvin-Edison Canal that it didn't take much rain for it to overflow - same for Caliente Creek. That also changed the way we covered news at 23 - we developed a rotating on-call system, so that people took gear home on weekends, to respond to spot news and emergencies.
I am currently working on a Masters Thesis on this topic at Fresno State. I apologize for the length of this post, but I hope people find it interesting. Anyone who feels like they have any pertinent info or photos may feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Sean Boyd, Fresno, CA.
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Sean,As you might remember, I was supposed to visit KERO for a job interview the day the storm hit! My flight was diverted to Fresno, we were taken by bus to Meadows Field, and I finally made it to the station a day later. Steve Talbot told me that he didn't have time to interview me, BUT that I could help out by reporting for the station! I did the lead package for the news Wednesday 12/21 and Steve eventually offered me a job!I have fond and vivid memories of that experience, the station, and working with pros like you, Leanne, Burleigh, Steve, Randolph Price and many others!
John Hernandez (firstname.lastname@example.org)