Sally J. Taylor

Rain that poured down during the last day of 1996, washing away several feet of snow that had fallen the previous week, set the scene for the murky economic year.

The city chamber’s Wallace sensed an impending disaster.

“I woke up in the middle of the night, New Years Eve, and I just dreamed or felt (the highway) was going to slide,” he said, recalling the 1983 slide that closed Highway 50 for 76 days during which he handed out coupons door to door to keep his business afloat.

By 7 a.m. on Jan. 1, hoping to lessen the impact of another slide, Wallace was on the phone to Stan Hansen, Heavenly Ski Resort’s vice president of governmental affairs, Tom Davis, the newly sworn in mayor, and Dick Powers with Area Transit Management.

“They had all had the same type of feeling,” Wallace said.

Together, the community leaders made calls to government and transportation officials. By the time the California Department of Transportation actually closed the highway at 10:10 a.m. on New Years Day, the gears were in motion to plow Iron Mountain Road as an alternate route and preparations were being made for emergency repairs, whatever that might entail.

The rampaging American River had undermined the highway, in some places leaving gaping holes that ate into a single remaining lane. On the inside slope, water flow cut deep gashes into the shoulder and nibbled at the asphalt.

Flood waters that had ripped downhill along Wrights Lake Road transformed the shady gully into a sunny canyon and deposited on the highway a mountain of mud, boulders and ripped-out trees.

With early repair estimates ranging from weeks to months, the business community met Jan. 3 for the first of almost daily disaster updates and advertising strategy sessions designed to block exaggerated or incorrect rumors that have a way of becoming Bay Area news reports.

Through faxes, radio spots and newspaper advertising, the “Take a New Route to Fun” campaign emphasized the alternate routes to the South Shore and the great fun that awaited visitors. The Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority took the lead on the emergency advertising program. Weidinger Public Relations developed at least seven versions of the alternate route map.

“We kept adding routes as roads opened up,” said Phil Weidinger, “then we added other routes in Northern California.”

The campaign cost the LTVA, lodging and other businesses that pledged funds $260,000.

Did it help?

“Absolutely,” said Weidinger who answered a deluge of inquiries, made dozens of calls and sent hundreds of faxes to update Sacramento Valley and Bay Area media people.

“As far as the perceptions of what was going on up here, it helped in a huge way. I can’t give you a percentage of how much it helped, I don’t think that’s trackable, but the result in terms of (the accuracy of) media reports was substantial.”

Kathy Farrell, executive director of the Tahoe-Douglas Chamber of Commerce, said her office also sent “hundreds and hundreds” of faxes and maps.

The effort, at the least, kept Tahoe visible in the news, she said. “It was the responsible gesture as well as responsive.”

With Caltrans scrambling with emergency repairs, the highway reopened Jan. 17, in a fraction the expected time, only to close again one week later.

Late Friday evening, Jan. 24, a wall of mud slid off the mountainside near Whitehall, just a short drive west of the 1983 slide site.

As it crashed onto the highway, it swept aside two vehicles – fortunately, without seriously hurting the passengers – then heaved across the river and left four vacant vacation homes in splinters; homes recently rebuilt following the Cleveland Fire of 1989.

The collapsed roof and demolished walls of one home owned by a Sacramento family who are now unable to afford it’s removal, remains as a ghostly reminder of the disaster.

By the time the highway reopened on Feb. 24, Caltrans contractors had carted away at least 300,000 cubic yards of debris.

Traffic delays for repairs continued through the summer, discouraging visitors, though the biggest delays were restricted to week days. In fall, the highway closed completely during the week.

Highway 50 re-reopened on Oct. 24, with monumental improvements designed to minimize the possibility of further slides.

Business leaders hope the improvements keep it open for good.

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