Levee breaks in Nevada as storms heads west

By Martin Griffith

FERNLEY, Nev. _ A ruptured levee sent a frigid “wall of water” from a rain-swollen canal into this high desert town early Saturday, flooding hundreds of homes and forcing the rescue of dozens of 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, after a section of the Truckee Canal levee up to 150 feet long broke soon after 4 a.m.

As many as 3,500 people were temporarily stranded and an estimated 1,500 ended up being displaced from their homes, Huntley said Saturday night. About 25 people remained at a shelter set up at a high school after a peak of about 150 earlier in the day.

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.

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    “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 pontoons in rescuing at least 18 people from driveways and rooftops. Local residents in fishing boats rescued many more.

    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 National Weather Service recorded 1.91 inches of rain at Reno-Tahoe International Airport on Friday, a record. Reno averages only 8 inches of rainfall annually and Fernley only about 5 inches.

    Gov. Jim Gibbons, who visited the shelter and toured the area by helicopter on Saturday, declared the county an emergency area. Federal Emergency Management Agency planned to conduct a damage assessment on Monday.

    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.

    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared emergencies in three counties hit hard by the storms.

    Remote sensors and ski areas in the high Sierra Nevada had recorded up to 5 feet of snow 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.

    As much as 9 feet of snow was possible in the Sierra by Sunday.

    An 80-mile stretch of U.S. Interstate 80 from Reno to Applegate, Calif., was closed Saturday night as the fresh wave of snow moved in.

    The weather also was blamed for a 17-car pileup that closed the westbound lanes of I-80 near Patrick just east of the Reno-Sparks area Saturday afternoon.

    U.S. 50 in California from Pollack Pines to Meyers had been shut down because of the risk of avalanche.

    “That essentially shuts down every pass in the Sierra,” said Ken Gosting, executive director of Transportation Involves Everyone in Yosemite Valley. “All the passes being closed is very unusual. It happens once every 15 years.”

    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.

    More than 450,000 homes and businesses from the Bay Area to the Central Valley were in the dark Saturday, down from more than 1.6 million the day before. It could be days before all the lights are back on, Pacific Gas & Electric officials said.

    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 – had been told to leave their homes by Friday evening. 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.”

    Associated Press writers Aaron C. Davis in Sacramento, Gillian Flaccus in Santa Ana, Elliot Spagat in San Diego County, Samantha Young in Sacramento, Marcus Wohlsen adn Jason Dearen in San Francisco, Scott Sonner in Reno and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.