Hundreds Of Homes Flooded By Ruptured Levee

By: Stewart Campbell Email
By: Stewart Campbell Email

An irrigation canal's earthen levee ruptured after heavy rains early Saturday, flooding hundreds of homes and forcing the rescue of dozens of people in helicopters and boats across about a square mile of their high desert town 30 miles east of Reno.

An irrigation canal's earthen levee ruptured after heavy rains early Saturday, flooding hundreds of homes and forcing the rescue of dozens of people in helicopters and boats across about a square mile of their high desert town 30 miles east of Reno.

"We had a 50-foot wall of water about 2 feet high going down Farm District Road," said Lyon County Fire Chief Scott Huntley, one of the first on the scene after a section of the Truckee Canal up to 150 feet long broke just after 4 a.m.

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

No injuries were reported. But as many as 3,500 people were temporarily stranded and more than 100 had gathered Saturday afternoon at a shelter set up at the local high school.

"It was like our house was dropped in the middle of the river," said Eric Cornett, who estimated the water was about 2 feet deep and rising fast when he was able to drive away from his home about 7 a.m. with his wife and three children.

"Garbage cans and pieces of wood were floating down the street," he said. "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."

As the water receded and immediate danger passed by mid-morning,
Fernley Mayor Todd Cutler said he had reports of damage to at least
300 to 400 homes.

"I think the damages are going to be discovered more and more as we go on through the day," Cutler said.

One official suggested burrowing rodents could 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 flooded homes were mostly in newer subdivisions of the century-old agricultural town that has grown in recent decades to about 20,000 people, many whom commute to Reno.

The nearby Fallon Naval Air Station provided two helicopters that aided rescue crews in pontoons in rescuing at least 18 people. Local residents in fishing boats rescued many more.

"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.

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."

By afternoon, the Truckee River water flowing into the canal was diverted upstream, said Ernie Schank, president of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District.

Gov. Jim Gibbons, who visited the shelter and toured the area by helicopter on Saturday, said the canal was not full at the time of the breech. He said it can carry up to 1,000 cubic feet of water per second and was carrying only 600 cubic feet at the time.

"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.

"Levees around Sacramento fail all the time because of animals. You have to look at that," Gibbons said.

Schank was the first who suggested the break may have started with rodent burrowing that weakened the canal's earthen bank.

"Evidently it was a rat or a gopher hole. The canal did not overtop the bank," he said.

The irrigation district has a bounty on gophers, said Kate Rutan, an administrative assistant at the district office. "Gophers are terrible for making a hole ... and once (water) finds a weak spot, it will go for it," she said.

Lyon County Undersheriff Bill Sanford said they would investigate but there did not appear to be anything "criminal in nature" tied to the incident.

"It simply appears it was the prefect storm and everything came together as it often does in Nevada," Sanford said. "It was a typical Friday night, Saturday morning in sleepy Fernley and this is what happened."

The break came as a storm pummeled the West Coast, raising a threat of mud slides and flooding in California, blacking out thousands of customers and blanketing the Sierra Nevada range with deep snow.

The Fernley area had gotten snow plus heavy rain on Friday.

"It was a mess up there last night," Nevada Highway Patrol trooper Chuck Allen said. The snow is about 2 inches in depth and the temperatures are right near the frigid mark both for the rescuers and rescues."

The canal brings water from the Truckee River, starting just east of Reno and running to the farming community of Fallon, about 60 miles away.

Fernley sits about halfway between Lake Tahoe, where the Truckee
River originates, and Pyramid Lake, where the river empties about 100 miles downstream.

In December 1996, flooding from a rupture of an irrigation canal that is part of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District surrounded about 60 Fernley homes with as much as 2 feet of water.

On Jan. 3, 1997, flooding from the Truckee River swamped motels, casinos and other businesses in Reno and made hundreds of homes
uninhabitable.


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