FERNLEY — Hundreds of homes sat in as much as 8 feet of water Sunday after a canal rupture, and freezing weather spread sheets of ice over yards and streets, hindering efforts to get the water to drain away.
Nearly 300 homes were damaged when the canal’s bank gave way after heavy rainfall produced by the West Coast storm system that piled snow as much as 11 feet deep in the Sierra Nevada.
Thousands of customers were blacked out across the West, and many of them in California could remain in the dark for days because the storm ripped down nearly 500 miles of power lines, utility officials said Sunday.
More than 215,000 people remained without power in Northern California alone.
At least three deaths were blamed on the storm.
The irrigation canal failure in Fernley released a wave of frigid water into the town early Saturday.
“In 10 minutes, the entire backyard was completely flooded. It was just nothing but water,” said Kristin Watson, whose house backs up to part of the canal. “We just sort of panicked because we knew we had to get out of there real quick.”
The canal was temporarily repaired by late in the day, but as much as a square mile of the town was still under water at least 2 feet deep Sunday as ice impeded drainage.
“Our hope is over the next 24 hours to get the water out,” Fernley Mayor Todd Cutler said at a briefing Sunday morning. “But we still have up to 8 feet of water in some areas. We need to keep the storm drains unclogged to keep the water moving to a wetland. We also may need to do some pumping in some areas.”
Lyon County Fire Division Chief Scott Huntley estimated 1,500 people had been displaced. No injuries were reported in the town of 15,000 people, about 30 miles east of Reno.
Huntley said officials knew of 18 cases of people rescued from atop homes or cars as fire department and private boats plus four helicopters were pressed into action Saturday, but he thinks there were many more.
“The sheer number of rescues was amazing,” Huntley said Sunday.
Cutler said: “For citizens to give of themselves and to help their neighbors, I’m choked up about it.”
An initial assessment Sunday found 290 homes suffered varying amounts of flood damage, said Kim Toulouse, spokesman for the Nevada Division of Emergency Management.
Despite heavy rain Friday, the canal was not full when the bank failed, Gov. Jim Gibbons said. “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.
One possible factor that officials have mentioned was rodents burrowing holes in the earthen bank, which was involved in a smaller collapse that flooded about 60 Fernley homes in December 1996.
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. The cause may never be known, he said.
“It’ll be hard to pinpoint the cause because the evidence is washed away,” said Schank, whose agency operates the 31-mile-long earthen canal.
In the mountains east of Los Angeles, authorities searched Sunday for a 62-year-old man who went hiking Friday just before the storm began, San Bernardino County sheriff’s spokeswoman Arden Wiltshire said.
Searchers last had cell phone contact with him early Saturday, before snow began falling in the area.
In the rugged Sierra Nevada range, the Kirkwood ski resort near Lake Tahoe reported about 11 feet of snow had fallen since the storm system moved inland from the Pacific last week.
As much as 3 feet more snow could hit higher elevations of the Sierra by Tuesday evening, the National Weather Service reported.
Parts of Northern California will get a reprieve from the rain and snow today, but in the mountains, “there’s a chance of snow and snow showers all the way through Thursday,” said weather service meteorologist Angus Barkhuff.
More than 215,000 homes and businesses in Northern California were still without power Sunday, and Pacific Gas and Electric said the storm had downed nearly 500 miles of power lines and more than 500 utility poles. Repair crews in the snow-covered Sierra foothills will have to use snowshoes, all-terrain vehicles and helicopters, utility officials said.
The storm also caused blackouts in parts of Oregon, Washington and Colorado.
In all, more than 2 million customers from the northern town of Eureka to Los Angeles had lost power since early Friday.
Seven people were hospitalized in Willows, Calif., near Chico, after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning from a propane lantern they used indoors because of the blackout, Glenn County officials said.
The storm was blamed for two deaths in California, including a woman whose pickup was swept into a flood channel east of Los Angeles, and one death in Oregon, police said.