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Dreaming of a white Christmas? Snow closed down the Cuesta Grade in 1990s

Terry Hetrick, a Caltrans equipment operator, waits for a grader to come across the road this morning as CHP escorts traffic over snow-topped Cuesta Grade March 19, 1991. David Middlecamp
Terry Hetrick, a Caltrans equipment operator, waits for a grader to come across the road this morning as CHP escorts traffic over snow-topped Cuesta Grade March 19, 1991. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Snow is a rare thing in coastal San Luis Obispo County. The higher peaks see an occasional dusting, but it is rare for the snow level to fall below the 1,500-foot Santa Luica Range.

You’ll have an even longer wait for a snowfall that accumulates enough powder to sled on or shut down a highway.

In the early 1990s, rain had been elusive through five years of drought when a big storm caught many off guard.

I remember seeing the big, heavy raindrops in San Luis Obispo. As the night got colder, it turned to snow on the Cuesta Grade.

David Eddy wrote this Telegram-Tribune story, edited here for length, on March 19, 1991, when a late-season storm roared into the county.

Floods, snow isolate county

Heavy rains combined with arctic air Monday to produce snow and flooding that virtually shut the county off from the outside world.

Ten inches of snow fell on Cuesta Grade, causing the closure of Highway 101 Monday night, though the road was re-opened at 6:30 this morning.

Flooding forced the closure of dozens of roads in and around the county, including Highways 41 West, 58 East, 166 and Highway 154 between Los Olivos and Santa Barbara, all of which remained closed this morning, said Caltrans spokeswoman Teri Joachim.

The county was cut off to the south as Highway 101 was closed near Gaviota because of rockslides, said Joachim. And to the east, Highway 46 was closed because of flooding near Golden Hill Road, she said. Both Highways 101 and 46 were re-opened this morning.

And rail service from Los Angeles was cut off near Vandenberg Air Force Base after a train derailed at 4:35 this morning because the tracks had washed out.

Clint Milne told the Board of Supervisors this morning the Salinas Reservoir has risen 13 feet in the last three days, adding an estimated 2,000 acre-feet to storage. There was about 8 inches of snow next to the reservoir.

The storm has created a “live stream” in the Salinas River, which means runoff into the reservoir can now be stored for the city of San Luis Obispo.

Flooding was common Monday night, though there were no serious injuries or extensive property damage reported.

However, the 12 hours of continuous rain led to dozens of dramatic, sometimes tearful moments for local residents.

Pam Tannehill and her daughter Megan, 11, huddled on a garage floor this morning over their yearling Black Angus steer.

They’d been up all night trying to keep him warm after he was trapped in rising San Luis Obispo Creek waters until about 3 a.m.

Tannehill and her husband Dale, have lived on Monte Road, just on the east side of Highway 101 near Avila Road for three years. They never expected the water that flooded their pastureland and killed one of their calves.

Neighbors who helped through the night were wonderful, said Tannehill. Most of them had already taken their cattle to higher ground.

“We tried to bring ours up,” said Tannehill. “But the current took them farther down the creek.”

Eventually with help from the neighbors and their son, Guy Tannehill, six of the family’s seven calves were saved. Their horses, which had bolted during the storm, also were back behind fences this morning.

No water got into their home, Tannehill said.

It was frustrating not being able to help the calves at first, said Tannehill. “I prayed and prayed that they’d survive.”

The calf on her garage floor had a sleeping bag and hot water bottle to help. He slept as Megan stroked his head and her mother stood watch.

199103-18sloflooding
Cal Poly student Toiny Hover watches San Luis Creek rise behind his trailer the evening of March 18, 1991. David Middlecamp David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Flood waters took their toll throughout the county.

South Bay Boulevard, which connects Los Osos and Morro Bay, was still closed this morning because of flooding in the Twin Bridges area, where the road was covered by 3 feet of water Monday night, said Jerry Ramos, a Morro Bay Public Works foreman.

Isolated power outages were reported as trees felled by wind, rain and snow severed power lines, said Barbie Colombo of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. A large portion of San Miguel and Paso Robles, including the city’s airport, lost power last night, but most customers were restored by this morning, she said.

Power remained out this morning on Cuesta Grade — Cutting off several radio stations — and in and around Pozo, where 400 homes were without electricity. PG&E crews struggled with the unfamiliar snow in the North County, said Colombo.

“The access is really bad,” she said. “We’re just not used to it.”

The rainfall Central Coast residents had been hoping for hit with a vengeance as more than 2 inches of rain fell on most of the county. Faced with one of its driest years on record until this month, more than 7 inches of rain have fallen in San Luis Obispo, making it the wettest march in five years.

Since the storm swooped down from Alaska and crashed into the Central Coast Sunday morning, San Luis Obispo has received 4.34 inches of rain, said meteorologist Gary Ryan of the National Weather Service. Paso Robles has received 3.45 inches from the storm.

Rain was heavier to the south, said Ryan, as an unbelievable 14.6 inches of rain fell on Old Man Mountain in Santa Barbara County since Sunday morning.

And more is on the way. After about 12 hours of respite, another storm should hit tonight, said Ryan. But this storm won’t pack nearly the wallop, carrying at most an inch of rain.

“A month ago we would have said ‘Wow, this is great,’‘ said Ryan. “Now it’s ‘Oh no.’”

The storm may drop more show on the Cuesta Grade tonight, as the snow level is again expected to approach 1,500 feet.

But the North County won’t see anything as dramatic as Monday’s storm, when Santa Margarita looked like it was in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The highest measured amount was 6 inches, recorded at the top of Cuesta Grade at 1:30 this morning, said Ryan. A total of 10 inches fell at the top of the grade, but it wasn’t quite cold enough to keep in from beginning to melt overnight, he said.

Residents in Santa Margarita just stood and gawked at the spectacle.

Every turnout along the Cuesta Grade was packed with empty cars. Their occupants were strewn across the white hillsides throwing as many snow balls as their frozen hands would allow. Young fathers held their babies out at arms length and told them to remember the morning for this is snow.

Julie Kubacki of San Luis Obispo bundled her two children up in their warmest clothes and took them to see the snow. “We decided to play hooky today so we could check this out.”

The tree fished several plastic grocery bags out of Kubacki’s car and set about trying to preserve the fleeting magic of the day.

Brian and Michele filled the bags with the white crystals. The bags were destined for the back of the Kubacki’s freezer and the oblivion of a child’s memory.

Driving through Santa Margarita was treacherous. Though the roads were clear, cars were liable to be pelted by snowballs thrown by mischievous children late to school.

Sabra Sandeffer of Atascadero brought her two children to Santa Margarita to see the winter wonderland. Patrick Sandeffer retrieved several snowballs t bring to show-and-tell at he Busy Bear Preschool in Atascadero.

They wee wise to come early. By 9 a.m. most of the snow “downtown” had melted.

Anita Garrison, as or owner near Santa Mararita Lake said some people have been driving up the lake, but they’ve all had four-wheel drive vehicles or had chains on their tires.

“There’s been no road clearing equipment out here at all,” she said. “It’s really slushy.”

Jodi Leslie, classroom aide at Carrisa Plains Elementary School, said the east part of the county was blanketed.

“We’ve got snow all over. From the top of vehicles, it looks like 8 inches,” she said. “I don’t think there will be many kids coming to school today.”

The snow caused several tourists to make impromptu stops in San Luis Obispo. Several Monterey Street motels reported soaked tourists seeking refuge.

Ranjit Sohi, a desk clerk at the Super 8 Motel on Monterey street said more than 10 couples came dripping in last night just after the grade closed.

Motel guests were finding it equally difficult to leave this morning, as a line of cars, trucks and recreational vehicles block the north end of Monterey Street waiting for the northbound lanes to open up again.

All along the coast, the mountain tops gleamed white against a bright blue sky.

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