Weather Watch

‘It was horrific’: A rainy drive from L.A. back to SLO County I’ll never forget

One of the behavioral differences between cattle and buffalo is how they react to storms, according to folklore.

On the Great Plains, like much of the United States, storms typically travel from the west toward the east pushed along by the upper-level winds (jet stream). As cold fronts approach from the west, buffalo will instinctively move directly into the storm, reducing the amount of time they spend in the rain or snow. Cattle, on the other hand, will run with the fronts, drastically increasing the amount of time exposed to the elements.

This story resonated with me coming home from Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road concert in Los Angeles on a stormy day with my wife Trish and our dear friends Dave Congalton and Kathy Minck. Here’s why.

On our drive back to the Central Coast, a strong cold front was moving eastward across Santa Barbara and Ventura counties into Los Angeles County. I figured like the “Buffalo” we would drive through the cold front somewhere near Ventura on Highway 101 and break out on the other side with decent driving conditions.

However, as we drove westward on Highway 101 near Calabasas, heavy rain slammed into us. Vehicles in the eastward lanes hit puddles of water that splashed across the concrete barrier that hit our car, reducing visibility to near zero. We got a report around this time that said Highway 101 near Santa Barbara was closed due to flooding.

To get back home, we would have to detour to the Grapevine on Interstate 5 and then drive westward along Highway 166 from Maricopa to Santa Maria.

Near Thousand Oaks, we turned right on a rain-slickened Highway 23 and headed northward toward the Reagan Library in Simi Valley after which the roadway turns eastward and becomes Highway 118 that leads directly to Interstate 5.

As we turned eastward, on Highway 118, we became the “cattle” as we moved with the cold front in perpetual heavy rain.

With our windshield wipers turned to the highest speed, we moved to the center lane and crept along at around 40 mph along with nearly all the other drivers. Nevertheless, there were a few individuals who zipped past us like we were standing still. In all my years of driving, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many automobile accidents in such a short period; I counted seven vehicle mishaps as we drove toward San Fernando. Why a few people decided to speed in conditions like this is beyond me. As any CHP officer will tell you, “speed kills.”

As we headed north on Interstate 5 toward the Grapevine, the entire freeway came to a stop near Gorman as a particularly tragic story unfolded.

According to the Ventura County Star newspaper: “Jeff Dye a member of the Ventura County sheriff’s search-and-rescue team was traveling with the group on their way to a training session at Mount Pinos, above Frazier Park in Kern County, said Ventura County sheriff’s Sgt. Eric Buschow. While the group was northbound along I-5, they encountered a crash on the freeway in the median and stopped to help, Buschow said. As they were assisting with the crash, ‘a vehicle plowed into them,’ Buschow said. “One of our SAR team members was killed, and several were injured.”

As we drove by, it was horrific, a scene I’ll never forget. Afterward, we drove with even more caution toward the Grapevine. However, believe it or not, yet another car raced past us, traveling at between 80 or 90 mph. I couldn’t believe it; after just witnessing that type of accident, you would think people would slow down. Thankfully, a familiar and reassuring black and white California Highway Patrol Ford Explorer was close behind with its lights flashing.

Overall, it took us nearly 10 hours to get home. If we had only stayed in Los Angeles and waited for the storm to past, we would’ve got back earlier. A valuable lesson that I should have learned many years ago: Avoid driving in inclement weather.

On another note, numerous readers have asked about the rainfall totals at the San Luis Obispo County Airport. I received this email from Eric Boldt, Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service Los Angeles/Oxnard: “We are aware of the Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) station at San Luis Obispo County Airport under-reporting rainfall during the early March storm. The ASOS was calibrated this week and is routinely calibrated throughout the year. Unfortunately, there was likely debris clogging the funnel into the tipping bucket that resulted in the low rainfall report earlier this month. The climate record for the month of March will need some adjustment, and we will look into an estimated rainfall amount for this location.”

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at or follow him on Twitter: @PGE_John.
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