- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2008

FERNLEY, Nev. (AP) — Hundreds of homes sat in as much as 8 feet of water today following a canal rupture as freezing temperatures hindered 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 at least 5 feet deep in the Sierra Nevada and blacked out thousands of customers in three states. At least three deaths were blamed on the storm.

“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.”

Winter storm warnings remained in effect for some mountainous areas from California to Colorado. Residents were warned of possible mudslides in parts of rain-soaked Southern California where slopes had been denuded by the fall’s wildfires.

One hiker was missing in snow-covered mountains in Southern California, and four snowmobilers were missing in heavy snow in the mountains of southern Colorado.

The irrigation canal ruptured at Fernley early yesterday and 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 today, with pools 8 feet deep in some areas.

Ice kept the water from draining naturally, and local officials said they were considering using pumps to speed the effort of getting the water to flow into a federal wetland outside town.

Lyon County Fire Chief Scott Huntley estimated 1,500 people had been displaced, with dozens of them rescued by helicopters and boats, when the water poured into town in a wave 2 feet high.

No injuries were reported in the town of 20,000 people about 30 miles east of Reno.

State and local officials were waiting for representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist in assessing the scale of the damage. Mayor Todd Cutler was optimistic some residents could return home tomorrow but others said it could be several days.

Heavy rain that fell Friday was considered a likely contributor to the canal levee’s failure but officials said the investigation was continuing. One possible factor being considered 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.

She said the large volume of water in the canal put more pressure on the bank and likely sped up its rupture. “They could have caught it early if there wasn’t so much rain,” VanGeem said.

In the mountains east of Los Angeles, authorities searched today 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 yesterday, before snow began falling in the area.

Farther east, the storm system’s heavy mountain snowfall prevented rescuers from resuming a search today for four snowmobilers missing since Friday near Colorado’s Cumbres Pass, elevation 10,222 feet, close to the New Mexico state line. The road to the pass was blocked by several feet of snow and as much as 2 feet more was forecast by the end of the day.

“They’re all up there waiting for the weather to clear so they can begin searching,” Conejos County, Colo., sheriff’s spokeswoman Maria Martinez said today. She said they might be waiting until tomorrow or later.

The weather service advised against any travel in Colorado’s mountains today, saying anyone who does should carry a winter survival kit.

At least 5 feet of snow had fallen on ski areas in the rugged Sierra Nevada by early today, with 9 feet possible at some higher elevations, the National Weather Service said. As much as 3 feet more could hit the area by Tuesday evening, the weather service said.

More than 220,000 homes and businesses in Northern California were still without power today, and Pacific Gas and Electric said the storm had downed nearly 500 miles of power lines and more than 500 utility poles throughout the Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay area. 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.

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.

Associated Press writer Peter Prengaman in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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