FERNLEY — Jesus Rodriguez was jolted awake early Saturday by his wife, who told him the street outside their house was filling with water.
"Flooding in the desert? I never thought it could happen here," Rodriguez said. "I thought she was crazy."
But within 20 minutes, the construction worker, his wife and their four children had waded through 3 feet of water, piled into their car and were trying to outrun the flood.
The car had gone only 10 feet before its engine died. "I told the kids everything would be OK," Rodriguez said.
Luckily, a good Samaritan in a passing pickup hauled Rodriguez and his family to safety.
Hundreds of Fernley residents evacuated their homes early Saturday after a 4 a.m. breach in an irrigation canal’s earthen levee sent rising waters into this high desert town 30 miles east of Reno.
At least 18 of the town’s 15,000 residents had to be evacuated by boats or helicopters provided by the Naval Air Station at Fallon and the Nevada Army National Guard, said Scott Huntley, division chief of the North Lyon County Fire Protection District. Local residents in fishing boats rescued many more. Huntley said the number of people rescued could approach 100.
No one suffered serious injuries, Huntley said. But about a square mile of land was flooded after a 30-foot section of the canal, which carries irrigation water from the Truckee River to farms in Fallon, failed.
An estimated 1,500 people ended up being displaced from their homes, said Huntley, who had incorrectly estimated the number to be as high as 4,000 earlier in the day.
The cause of the canal breach had not been determined Saturday, but Lyon County Undersheriff Jim Sanford said the 10-foot-wide earthen walls probably had been weakened by the nearly 2 inches of rain that fell in the area Friday and early Saturday.
"We have to look at the weather as the culprit," Sanford said.
Another stretch of the canal broke open during heavy rainfall on New Year’s Day in 1997.
Sanford said he was aware of a report that a small earthquake occurred about the time of the breach Saturday, but he discounted that as the cause.
As much as 10 feet of snow was expected to fall this weekend in the nearby Sierra Nevada, but less than inch had fallen in Fernley at the time of the breach.
Between 400 and 500 homes are in the flooded area, Huntley said. Water was 2 to 4 feet deep in an undetermined number of homes and 8 feet deep in some garages.
"I think the damages are going to be discovered more and more as we go on through the day," Fernley Mayor Todd Cutler said.
Water began receding by noon Saturday, but officials did not know when residents would be able to return home.
The Truckee River water flowing into the canal was diverted upstream, said Ernie Schank, president of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District.
An evacuation center was set up at Fernley High School, but few of the 50 or so people at the center Saturday afternoon said they planned to spend the night. They said they preferred to stay with friends or at motels.
Evacuees told of damaged homes and lost possessions, but most were happy to be safe and dry.
"Everything at home is ruined, but we are alive," said Elizabeth Schinkel, who grabbed two days’ worth of clothing and a laptop computer before jumping in the back of someone’s pickup.
Alicia Rollins took even less, just her sons Tyler, 9, and Bradley, 8. She said someone rang the doorbell at 5 a.m. and shouted for them to leave.
Rollins had moved into her house a month ago and was unaware a canal was nearby.
"It never, ever occurred to me there could be a flood out here," she said. "I was in a state of shock."
Like others at the high school, Rollins wanted to return home as soon as waters subsided. Until then, she said, she will stay with her father in Reno.
Huntley and Cutler praised the evacuation effort at a news conference.
But one flooded resident, Dave Marshall, interrupted to ask why he had not been awakened and warned of the flooding in his neighborhood. Marshall and others said the city should have a reverse 911 system to call and warn of such dangers.
Sanford said the county had a reverse 911 system as recently as last year but discontinued it because of budget problems.
Gov. Jim Gibbons toured the flooded area, praised the rescue effort and promised to try to secure federal or state funding for victims. He declared a state of emergency for Lyon County.
"This is a big state," the governor said. "We are doing what we can."
While the governor soon will announce how he will deal with a $440 million shortfall in tax revenue, he said there are some state emergency funds that could be given to Fernley residents. He did not know how much the state could offer flood victims.
U.S. Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign said in a statement after a conference call with officials for the Federal Emergency Management Agency that FEMA officials would travel to Fernley to conduct a damage assessment on Monday.
Officials doubted many Fernley residents carried flood insurance. Flooding does not naturally occur in the area.
"I don’t have flood insurance," said Rodriguez, who planned to spend the night in a motel. "We are going to need money. I doubt we can go home for a week."
The board of the irrigation district is scheduled to meet Monday, and resident Bob Smith said flood victims will be turning out to demand assistance.
The flooding ruined the carpeting in his house, but he and his wife, Barb, were thankful it was not worse.
"You have to be thankful when you walk away from something like this," Smith said. "Everything else is just stuff."
Contact reporter Ed Vogel at evogel@ reviewjournal.com or (775) 687-3901. The Associated Press contributed to this report.