Fear of rising water behind dam brings evacuations in Riverside County, Calif.

Published: Friday, January 14, 2005 at 12:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 14, 2005 at 1:16 p.m.

Rainwater building up behind a dam prompted authorities to order the evacuation of more than 800 homes in Riverside County early Friday.

A police spokesman said he believed there was a small leak in the Prado Dam, near the town of Corona, but the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates and oversees the dam, disputed that.

"We're releasing water," said Fred-Otto Egeler, spokesman for the Los Angeles district of the Corps of Engineers. "It's being retained behind the dam, and we're making normal releases at this moment."

Officers were evacuating about 330 mobile homes and 500 other homes east of the dam, Police Sgt. Jerry Rodriguez said. The area is about 50 miles east-southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

Water was rising behind the dam and "the dam is not able to support it, so for precautionary reasons we're evacuating the homes," he said. "My understanding is there's a leak in the dam."

The National Weather Service issued a flood watch along the Santa Ana River in both Riverside and Orange counties. An evacuation center was set up at Corona High School, and residents could be seen on television reports jamming the few streets out of the evacuated neighborhoods.

To the north, rescuers flew in food and medical supplies Thursday to more than 100 people trapped in a small Angeles National Forest mountain community by a storm-swollen river that washed out three bridges.

The raging San Gabriel River cut off ground access to the approximately 135 permanent residents of Follows Camp, in the forest about 30 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.

"We're completely separated from the rest of the world," said Lt. Tim Dowling of the Follows Camp Volunteer Fire Department. The flooding washed out half of the community's fire equipment, including a fire engine that fell into the river.

Besides flying in food and medical supplies, the rescuers also flew out a heart patient needing special medication and a 10-year-old boy who had been visiting friends when he was trapped in the camp.

The series of storms that pummeled the state eased up earlier in the week, but Californians were still dealing with the aftermath. In all, 28 deaths were blamed on the storms, including 10 killed in Ventura County's La Conchita when a mudslide buried part of the coastal community.

The storms probably cost the state more than $100 million in damage to homes, roads and farms, according to experts still tallying the bill.

Damage estimates for just the state's highways and interstate system come to about $50 million, CalTrans spokesman David Anderson said.

"As more assessments are made we expect that number to climb," he said.

Farmers in the county suffered an estimated $38 million in losses as rain drowned out crops and ripped out irrigation systems, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Wet winter raises threat of Mississippi River flooding

For now, the Mississippi River valley, swollen from snow melt and rain, is mostly a nuisance. But with the rest of winter and spring ahead, there are growing worries about the threat of devastating flooding.

"We have some pretty good water coming. It's so early in the year, and that's one of the things that is causing us some concern," said Larry Banks, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers watershed division chief who oversees the Mississippi River.

Already-high waters have caused problems for river traffic on the Ohio River and minor flooding in low-lying areas outside the levees that hold in the river's water.

"Last week we had four to eight inches of rain over a good part of the lower Missouri, upper Mississippi and the Ohio river basins and that's pushed river levels to well above flood stages," Banks said. "It will put water into homes, camps, businesses along a 900-plus mile reach of the river."

The volume of water coursing down the river this January hasn't been seen in more than 50 years, officials said.

On Jan. 19, the river is expected to crest at 54.5 feet at Cairo, Ill. _ about 14.5 feet above flood stage. The water gauge at Cairo is a key indicator because it measures the combined flow of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, or about 41 percent of the nation's waters.

Levee boards and Corps officials are on alert.

"This whole levee system is only as good as its weakest link, so everybody has to work together to make sure it stays intact," Banks said.

In the Mississippi Delta, high waters have flooded low-lying farm lands, choked a few rural roads down to one lane and turned some neighborhoods soggy outside the protection of levees, said Michael Logue, a spokesman for the Corps' Vicksburg, Miss., district office.

Also, Mississippi wildlife wardens are expected to shut down hunting in delta woods and fields flooded by the high waters. By law, the state clamps down on hunting when animals are forced out of their natural habitat.

"It's going to cut out one of our prime areas up there," said L.W. "Bump" Callaway, a board member of the Warren County Hunting and Fishing Club. "We have deer, rabbits, squirrel, turkey."

In New Orleans, the Coast Guard has posted advisories on the Mississippi, directing river traffic to be vigilant about high waters. The Coast Guard on Thursday placed some restrictions on barges, underpowered vessels and towing in New Orleans.

"Currents can be very unpredictable," said Lt. Kevin Lynn of the Coast Guard's marine safety division in New Orleans. "Up and down the Ohio river, they are on alert and have been putting out safety advisories and implementing safety zones."

Just how bad things get will depend on how much more rain falls.

"Every year stands on its own. Everything depends on the precipitation and where that falls within the Mississippi basin," Logue said. "Everybody gets excited. But we've had high waters in January and then seen a drought in May."

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