Hundreds of Travelers Stranded
October 24, 2015
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  • On Friday October 16, Mojave was home to hundreds of travelers who became stranded during the mudslide that closed both east and westbound lanes of I-58 between Tehachapi and Mojave. Displaced trucks and cars were stacked up for blocks in downtown Mojave, and dazed evacuees crowded shelters. Witnesses described a terrifying scene; heavy rain fell and, within moments, their vehicles were surrounded by up to 20 feet of mud. Cars were picked up by the force of the slide and pushed into the center median, becoming pinned between tractor trailer trucks, vehicles, and debris. Over 200 cars are abandoned on the interstate, which the California Highway Patrol says could take days to clear and reopen.

    Louise Rosa, a tour director for American Incoming, was leading a full bus from Death Valley to Bakersfield when the storm hit. She described heavy rains and slow traffic on westbound 58 around the Cameron Road exit. Within moments, she said, “The water was up to the median. It was scary. Very scary.” The bus driver, Freddy Samarripa, described how frightened the passengers were as the bus was pushed into the median. He was trying to calm his frantic passengers and prevent them from climbing out of the bus windows. He recalls thinking, “I wanted to call my wife, and what am I going to do if the bus tips?” Rosa, Samarripa, and their passengers spent twelve hours on the bus overnight. Rosa said the California Highway Patrol checked on them regularly, brought water, and were “extremely good”. After spending 6-12 hours trapped, they and other stranded motorists were picked up by buses provided by Edwards Airforce Base, Mojave First Baptist Church, and other local agencies.

    Shelters were established in Mojave to accommodate travelers who couldn’t reach their destination as well as evacuees from the mudslide. The Red Cross was stationed at Mojave High School and served over 100 people with shelter, food, and water. Jennifer Faux, the director on site, said “the Red Cross will be in Mojave as long as we’re needed.

    Another shelter was located at Mojave First Baptist Church on Cerro Gordo St., which also served over 100 people. Evacuees Aline and Eric Farmers described “waves of mud and debris” surrounding their car. Ron Konkle was traveling from Los Angeles to San Bernandino when he was detoured from I-5 to 58. He said, “The rain was very heavy. There was a double line of vehicles going 5-15 miles per hour, then traffic stopped. A quarter of a mile behind me, mud covered a semi-truck.” He was rescued around 2:30 am by an officer from the Kern County Sherriff Department. He was appreciative for First Baptist’s Church’s hospitality, saying, “Everyone has been very helpful.” The Citizen Service Unit of Kern County Sheriff was on hand to help keep people updated on traffic conditions and alternate routes.

    Also in Mojave, The Lord’s Missionary Christian Ministries on Inyo St. housed 20 stranded travelers Thursday night and kept their doors open on Friday to provide food, water, and shelter. They handed out sack lunches to the truck drivers who lined the streets. Pastor Annette Simpson White said she was glad for the chance to serve, and “It was a blessing to be open”.

    The local aviation community also responded to the disaster. Ken Hogte, who owns three planes, donated his planes to help fly people from Mojave to Tehachapi along with two planes based in Tehachapi. A team of 7-10 volunteer pilots flew 31 trips and transported 65 people. Hogte stressed that “general aviation can make a difference when a disaster happens”. He said, “When we have a catastrophic event, it is clear that the aviation community can be activated on short notice to help people.” One of the volunteer pilots, Elliot Seguin, added “airplanes are the perfect solution to this problem.” Seguin explained that the pilots began organizing their action plan Thursday night. Hogte said he coordinated with Karina Dress, future CEO of Mojave Air and Spaceport, to set up a staging area for the pilots’ efforts.

    The agencies that responded to this disaster include the California Highway Patrol, Kern County Sherriff’s Department and Citizen Service Unit, Bakersfield Police Department, and Tehachapi Police Department. They, along with countless volunteers, were mobilized in the early morning hours to rescue those stranded in the mud and provide supplies to the hundreds of displaced motorists. Remarkably, no injuries or fatalities have been reported.