Burst levee floods town east of Reno
A levee break early Saturday sent up to 8 feet of icy water coursing through hundreds of homes in the northwestern Nevada town of Fernley, the largest catastrophe tied to the weekend storms that have lashed California and Nevada.
The flooding stranded thousands of people, some of whom were carried out of their neighborhoods in pontoon boats or helicopters. No injuries were reported, but more than 1,500 people were displaced, officials said Saturday night.
“It was like our house was dropped in the middle of the river,” said resident Eric Cornett, who was able to drive away as the water rose. “Garbage cans and pieces of wood were floating down the street. We saw water coming in the back door and tried to grab as much stuff as possible to save it. . . . The water was freezing. I couldn’t even feel my feet.”
Gov. Jim Gibbons declared a state of emergency in Lyon County and said federal officials were sending emergency supplies to the waterlogged region. Authorities temporarily sealed the breach on the Truckee Canal, a 150-foot wide, 8-foot deep waterway that irrigates the region’s farms. They also diverted water that normally would flow into the canal upstream.
“Hopefully the worst is over for these people,” said Chuck Allen of the Nevada Department of Public Safety. “We can control the water -- unlike in Hurricane Katrina, where Mother Nature took over.”
The earthen levee gave way just after 4 a.m., soaking homes in the bedroom community of about 20,000 located 30 miles east of Reno. Most residents were evacuated in school buses, though helicopters from the Fallon Naval Air Station transported 18 people, Allen said.
The canal -- which can move 1,000 cubic feet of water per second -- was carrying about 700 cubic feet per second at the time of the breach, double its volume in recent weeks, said Dave Overvold, project manager for the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District. Overvold said it was likely that gophers or other rodents had caused the rupture.
Animals commonly burrow openings into canal banks, Overvold said. When the canal’s volume changes -- as it did with the current storms -- water can rip through the resulting weak spots, he said.
“It simply appears it was the perfect storm and everything came together as it often does in Nevada,” said Lyon County Undersheriff Joe Sanford. “It was a typical Friday night, Saturday morning in sleepy Fernley and this is what happened.”
The region has flooded twice in recent years.
In 1996, dozens of Fernley homes were surrounded by up to 2 feet of water. The next year, the Truckee River overflowed into Reno, drenching homes and casinos.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.