Flooded Nev. town struggling


David and Cassie Russell leave their home in Fernley, Nev., on Sunday after returning to it for the first time since flood waters forced them to evacuate the day before.

The Associated Press
Published: Monday, January 7, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 7, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

FERNLEY, Nev. - 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 temporarily 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.

But Ernie Schank, president of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, said Sunday that a geologist had turned up no evidence of burrowing animals near the site of the break. The cause may never be known, he said.

"It'll be hard to pinpoint the cause because the evidence is washed away,'' said Schank, whose agency operates the 31-mile-long earthen canal.

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