Officials try to drain Nevada high desert town after levee break
FERNLEY (AP) — Cars were still halfway submerged in water and residents paddled down streets in boats as officials tried to drain a northern Nevada high desert town after a flood caused by the rupture of an irrigation canal’s earthen levee.
Cold weather was turning flood waters to ice and complicating work for officials seeking to help hundreds of Fernley residents whose homes remained under up to 8 feet of water on Sunday, a day after the break.
Silvia Cansdales, 32, a mother of three who works at Amazon.com’s West Coast distribution center in Fernley, was among anxious residents unable to immediately return to the flooded homes about 30 miles east of Reno.
“We don’t know what we’re going to do next,” said Cansdales, whose family — like most in town — didn’t have flood insurance. “I don’t even want to think about what we’re going to return to.”
Most of the homes are located in newer subdivisions that now stand amid a large lake of muddy, brownish water. The flood waters cover as much as a square mile of the growing rural town of about 20,000 that has a mix of residents who work in Reno and Fernley.
Fernley Mayor Todd Cutler said Sunday that he hopes most of the water can be removed by Tuesday. Officials are trying to allow natural flows to move most of the water to a wetland outside town.
“But we still have up to 8 feet of water in some areas,” Cutler said. “We need to keep the storm drains unclogged to keep the water moving to the wetland. We also may need to do some pumping in some areas.”
Cutler has estimated 300 to 400 homes had been damaged by the flood waters in Fernley and Huntley estimated 1,500 people had been displaced, dozens of them rescued by helicopters and boats when a 2-foot high wall of water roared out of the levee Saturday morning.
No injuries were reported. While more than 300 people initially registered at an American Red Cross shelter set up at a local high school, all but a handful ended up spending the night with friends or in motels.
Lyon County Fire Division Chief Scott Huntley said many flood victims already have returned home but it could be days before others return.
“Even people who have returned to their homes still don’t have normalcy,” he said. “They have mud on their carpet, worries about what was in the water and things like that.”
Huntley said officials documented the rescue of 18 people stranded in the flood waters on tops of cars or homes. He estimated there were dozens more, perhaps as many as 100.
“The sheer number of rescues was amazing. There were a lot of undocumented rescues and they were numerous within the first 5 minutes,” he said Sunday.
In addition to four helicopters and fire department boats, numerous local residents used their own fishing boats to round up flood victims.
“The stories of people coming together in this community are very moving,” Cutler said Sunday. “For citizens to give of themselves and to help their neighbors, I’m choked up about it.”
The break came after a day of unusually heavy rainfall for the high desert town. The rain was considered a likely contributor to the levee’s failure but officials said an investigation of the cause was continuing, including the possibility burrowing rodents played a role, as they did in a smaller collapse at a different spot in the levee that flooded about 60 Fernley homes in December 1996.
“The animals make a relatively small hole and then the hole gets bigger over time,” Fernley City Councilman Curt Chaffin said.
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. While a sudden rise in the canal’s waters may have been a factor in the rupture, the cause may never be known, he said.
“It’ll be hard to pinpoint the cause because the evidence is washed away,” Schank said.
The break originally was estimated to be up to 150 feet long but officials said Sunday it was closer to 50 feet.
Gibbons, who toured the area by helicopter on Saturday, said the canal was not full at the time of the rupture. 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.
The 31-mile-long, 105-year-old canal sends water from the Truckee River, just east of Reno, to irrigate melons and alfalfa in Fallon, about 60 miles east of Reno. It’s about 50 feet wide and nine feet deep.
Engineer Martha VanGeem called earthen levees “the least strong and the least expensive” of the various materials used in levee construction.
“It’s also the most prone to this ripping apart. 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 VanGeem, principal engineer with CTLGroup, a Skokie, Ill.-based consulting firm.
VanGeem said the large volume of water rushing through the canal put more pressure on the breach and likely sped up its rupture.
“They might have just seen it leaking when it was three or four feet wide (under normal conditions),” she said. “They could have caught it early if there wasn’t so much rain.”
The storm dumped up to 11 feet of snow in the Sierra, causing motorists to complain and skiers and snowboarders to rejoice. U.S. Interstate 80 over Donner Summit was closed overnight, and chains or snow tires were required at least part of Sunday on almost all major highways and roads in northern Nevada.
“The snow is so deep that skiers and riders will need to pack a snorkel,” said Rachael Woods, spokeswoman for Alpine Meadows ski resort just north of Lake Tahoe.
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Reno and Kathleen Hennessey in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
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