Ice slows cleanup in flooded Nev. town

January 6, 2008 3:15:19 PM PST
Hundreds of homes sat in as much as 8 feet of water Sunday following a canal rupture as freezing weather spread sheets of ice over yards and streets, hindering efforts to get the water to drain away. As many as 400 homes were damaged when the canal's bank gave way following heavy rainfall produced by the West Coast storm system that had piled snow as much as 11 feet deep in the Sierra Nevada.

Thousands of customers had been blacked out in three states and many of them in California could remain in the dark for days because the storm ripped down nearly 500 miles of power lines, utility officials said Sunday.

Six snowmobilers and two skiers were reported missing in heavy snow in the mountains of southern Colorado, and one hiker was missing in snow-covered mountains in Southern California.

At least three deaths were blamed on the storm.

The irrigation canal failure at Fernley released a wave of frigid water into the town early Saturday.

"In 10 minutes the entire back yard was completely flooded. It was just nothing but water," said Kristin Watson, whose home backs up to part of the canal. "We just sort of panicked because we knew we had to get out of there real quick."

The canal was repaired by late in the day, but as much as a square mile of the town was still under water at least 2 feet deep Sunday as ice impeded drainage.

"Our hope is over the next 24 hours to get the water out," Fernley Mayor Todd Cutler said at a briefing Sunday morning. "But we still have up to 8 feet of water in some areas. We need to keep the storm drains unclogged to keep the water moving to a wetland. We also may need to do some pumping in some areas."

Lyon County Fire Division Chief Scott Huntley estimated 1,500 people had been displaced. No injuries were reported in the town of 20,000 people about 30 miles east of Reno.

Huntley said officials knew of 18 cases of people rescued from atop homes or cars as fire department and private boats plus four helicopters were pressed into action Saturday, but he believes there were many more.

"The sheer number of rescues was amazing," Huntley said Sunday.

"For citizens to give of themselves and to help their neighbors, I'm choked up about it," Cutler said.

Despite heavy rain Friday, Gov. Jim Gibbons said the canal was not full when the bank failed. "This indicates to me there might have been a structural weakness over the years. Nobody knows and we don't want to speculate at this time," he said.

One possible factor that officials have mentioned was rodents burrowing holes in the earthen bank, which also was involved in a smaller collapse that flooded about 60 Fernley homes in December 1996.

"If you get just a tiny little break, from a rodent, from anything, it can take the rest of the soil and gravel with it," said Martha VanGeem, principal engineer with CTLGroup, a Skokie, Ill.-based consulting firm.

"They could have caught it early if there wasn't so much rain," VanGeem said.

Rescuers in Colorado resumed a search Sunday for six snowmobilers last seen Friday, before the storm dumped 3 to 4 feet of snow near Cumbres Pass, close to the New Mexico line.

The Denver Post said the snowmobilers were two couples from Farmington, N.M., and their two children, ages 14 and 13.

Donna Oney of the Colorado State Patrol said 11 search and rescue team members and three deputies were looking for the snowmobilers.

Two skiers were missing 40 miles away in the Wolf Creek ski area, Oney said. Wolf Creek had reported 39 inches of snow overnight

In the mountains east of Los Angeles, authorities searched Sunday for a 62-year-old man who went hiking Friday just before the storm began, San Bernardino County sheriff's spokeswoman Arden Wiltshire said. Searchers last had cell phone contact with him early Saturday, before snow began falling in the area.

In the rugged Sierra Nevada range, the Kirkwood ski resort near Lake Tahoe reported about 11 feet of snow had fallen since the storm system moved inland from the Pacific last week.

As much as 3 feet more snow could hit higher elevations of the Sierras by Tuesday evening, the National Weather Service said. Parts of Northern California will get a reprieve from the rain and snow on Monday, but in the mountains, "there's a chance of snow and snow showers all the way through Thursday," said weather service meteorologist Angus Barkhuff.

More than 234,000 homes and businesses in Northern California were still without power Sunday, and Pacific Gas and Electric said the storm had downed nearly 500 miles of power lines and more than 500 utility poles. Repair crews in the snow-covered Sierra foothills will have to use snowshoes, all-terrain vehicles and helicopters, utility officials said.

Fewer than 5,000 customers were still blacked out in the Los Angeles area. The storm also caused blackouts in parts of Oregon and Washington.

In all, more than 2 million customers from the northern town of Eureka to Los Angeles had lost power since early Friday.

Seven people were hospitalized at Willows, Calif., near Chico, after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning from a propane lantern they used indoors because of the blackout, Glenn County officials said.

The storm was blamed for two deaths in California, including a woman whose pickup truck was swept into a flood channel east of Los Angeles, and one death in Oregon, police said.

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Associated Press writers Peter Prengaman in Los Angeles, Scott Sonner in Reno and Kathleen Hennessey in Las Vegas contributed to this report.