- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2008

FERNLEY, Nev. (AP) — A ruptured levee sent a frigid “wall of water” from a rain-swollen canal into this high desert town early yesterday, flooding hundreds of homes and forcing the rescue of dozens of people by helicopter and boat.

To the west, a layer of heavy snow covered the Northern California mountains as rain and wind from the third storm in as many days hit the West Coast. The storms have been blamed for at least three deaths, and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in California, Oregon and Washington were without power yesterday.

No injuries were reported in the flood in Fernley, about 30 miles east of Reno, after a section of the Truckee Canal levee up to 150 feet long broke soon after 4 a.m.

As many as 3,500 people were temporarily stranded and an estimated 1,500 were displaced from their homes, Lyon County Fire Chief Scott Huntley said last night. About 25 persons remained at a shelter set up at a high school after a peak of about 150 earlier in the day.

Eric Cornett estimated the water was about 2 feet deep and rising fast when he drove away from his home with his wife and three children.

“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,” he said.

Chief Huntley, one of the first on the scene, described it as a “wall of water about 2 feet high going down Farm District Road.”

Two helicopters aided rescue crews in pontoons in rescuing at least 18 persons from driveways and rooftops. Local residents in fishing boats rescued many more.

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

One official suggested burrowing rodents might 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,” Chief Huntley said.

Gov. Jim Gibbons, who visited the shelter and toured the area by helicopter, declared the county an emergency area. The Federal Emergency Management Agency planned to conduct a damage assessment tomorrow.

Avalanche warnings were posted for the backcountry of the central Sierra Nevada and flash flood warnings were in effect for many areas of Southern California, where large swaths of hillsides had been denuded by the fall’s wildfires.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared emergencies in three counties hit hard by the storms.

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