Levee Breaks in Nevada, About 3,500 Temporarily Stranded, 3 Dead

January 7, 2008

A ruptured levee sent a frigid “wall of water” from a rain-swollen canal into this high desert town Saturday, Jan. 5, flooding hundreds of homes and forcing the rescue of more than a dozen people by helicopter and boat.

To the west, a dangerous layer of heavy snow covered the Northern California mountains as rain and wind from the third storm in as many days hit the West Coast. The storms have been blamed for at least three deaths, and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in California, Oregon and Washington were without power Saturday.

No injuries were reported in the flood in Fernley, about 30 miles east of Reno, Nev., after a section of the Truckee Canal up to 150 feet long broke soon after 4 a.m. As many as 3,500 people were temporarily stranded and more than 100 had gathered Saturday afternoon at a shelter set up at a high school.

Eric Cornett estimated the water was about 2 feet deep and rising fast when drove away from his home with his wife and three children.

“We saw water coming in the back door and tried to grab as much stuff as possible to save it. The water was rising very quickly and it was scary. The water was freezing. I couldn’t even feel my feet,” he said.

Lyon County Fire Chief Scott Huntley, one of the first on the scene, described it as a “wall of water about two feet high going down Farm District Road.”

“In some places folks had to deal with 8 feet of water,” he said. “Firefighters were in chest-deep water making rescues.”

Two helicopters aided rescue crews in boats in rescuing at least 18 people.

“Some folks were standing in their driveways and some were on top of their buildings,” said Zip Upham, a spokesman for the Navy training facility.

By afternoon, the Truckee River water flowing into the canal was diverted upstream, said Ernie Schank, president of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District. As the water receded, Fernley Mayor Todd Cutler said he had reports of damage to at least 300 to 400 homes.

One official suggested burrowing rodents might have contributed to the break in the levee along with the heavy rains, but the cause wasn’t clear.

“We have to look at the weather as the culprit right now, but we are not sure of that,” Huntley said.

The century-old agricultural town has grown in recent decades to about 20,000 people, many whom commute to Reno.

Maureen Tabata said she and her husband were rescued in a boat after she awoke to see “water everywhere.”

“We did our best to block the water but it came rushing in through the doors and garage. The force of the water knocked over the TV,” Tabata said. “All of our furniture, carpet — everything is destroyed. It’s just unbelievable.”

Avalanche warnings were posted for the backcountry of the central Sierra Nevada and flash flood warnings were in effect for many areas of Southern California, where large swaths of hillsides had been denuded by the fall’s wildfires.

Remote sensors and ski areas in the high Sierra Nevada had recorded up to 5 feet since Friday morning, and the west side of the Lake Tahoe Basin already had 4 to 5 feet by Friday night, the National Weather Service office in Reno, Nev., said Saturday.

The National Weather Service recorded wind gusts up to 165 mph on mountaintops northwest of Lake Tahoe on Friday.

“If you take the wind gusts, the snowfall and all of it together, it’s definitely one of the biggest storms we’ve experienced in a number of years,” said weather service meteorologist Scott McGuire.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski declared a state of emergency for Umatilla County because of wind damage.

As the storm moved east, whiteout conditions and up to 4 feet of snow were forecast in the Colorado mountains. High wind overturned a tractor-trailer rig in Colorado Springs, briefly closing Interstate 25. Later, multiple accidents closed eastbound I-70 just east of Vail.

East of Los Angeles, a 25-year-old woman died after her pickup truck was swept into a flood channel. Rescuers found her 36-year-old boyfriend clinging to a tree.

Authorities said the couple unwittingly drove onto a flooded road in Chino because someone removed a barricade.

The storm also was blamed for the death of a woman killed by a falling tree in Oregon, and a falling branch killed a transportation worker in Northern California on Friday.

In the south, residents of Orange County canyons that were stripped by wildfires last fall — making them susceptible to mudslides — nervously watched weather reports to learn when they might be hit by the fierce wind and heavy downpours forecast for the area.

About 3,000 people in four canyons had been told to leave their homes by 7 p.m. Friday, Orange County fire Capt. Mike Blawn said. However, there was no indication how many obeyed, and mandatory evacuation orders were later lifted.

In one of the four canyons, Modjeska, thick mud coated roads Saturday as Gene Corona, 72, wore hip boots and a raincoat as he used a shovel to repair erosion in a channel he had dug to carry water away from his home.

“I made the rounds last night, every hour on the hour, whenever stuff started breaking through,” he said. “I saved my house. It’s my home, and insurance doesn’t cover mudslides.”

More than 450,000 homes and businesses from the Bay Area to the Central Valley were in the dark early Saturday, down from more than 1.6 million the day before, Pacific Gas & Electric officials said.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service is predicting more rains for the same Western areas, this week.

Associated Press reports contributed to this article.

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