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The river rises; Nora strands Mexican truckers

September 26, 1997

LOS CUATES, Mexico (AP) _ A full quarter-mile wide, a muddy river raged across Baja California’s only north-south highway. Tall cacti peeked above the current, and a bleating cow was swept toward the sea.

And in the middle of it all, six people trembled inside their trucks, watching the water slowly rise up their tires _ and then up to their doors _ and wondering how much higher it would go.

Hurricane Nora _ before it weakened to a tropical storm _ swept across the Mexican peninsula that extends south from California on Thursday, churning up high winds and surf and washing out roads before it made its way toward Arizona.

Truck driver Jose Luis Barba Lopez hadn’t know anything about the storm when he headed out early Thursday from the border town of Tijuana to take vegetables and meat to markets in Santa Rosalia, halfway down Baja California.

The rain started as he drove south _ unusual for the desert _ but he didn’t think much of it until about 4 a.m., when he got to Los Cuates, a remote outpost near the town of Catavina, about 250 miles south of Tijuana.

There, two rivers of floodwater had washed out the road in spots about a quarter-mile apart. Two trucks carrying furniture waited where the road disappeared _ one with two men inside; the other with a family of three.

The drivers saw the highway posts peeking above the water and decided to make a run for it.

The mud was deeper than they thought, but they made it _ barely _ through the current. But the second river was deeper, and moving faster. They realized they wouldn’t make it across.

The two-lane road wasn’t wide enough to turn around, and the mud on either side would surely engulf their tires. So they killed the engines and waited for the water to drop.

It didn’t.

It rose, then began lapping at the front tires. And then they realized the river behind them had reached their back tires.

Soon, the two rivers had become one, and Barba Lopez could do nothing except watch the mud climb first up his tires, then up the steps to his cab.

``I’ve never seen the water rise like that,″ he said over CB radio. ``I’ll admit I was afraid.″

For hours the truckers sat there, while other big rigs and a bus pulled up to the point where the road slipped under the water. The truckers talked to Barba Lopez by CB.

Jorge Sanchez, 57, said he felt helpless as he watched the water rise. He saw the highway posts disappear, trees being swept away, and even a cow wash down the river. He prayed that the trucks wouldn’t go as well.

One truck returned to get help; a group of soldiers in a Humvee said they’d come, but never did.

The water rose until it reached the bottom of the doors. And then, miraculously, it stopped _ and even began to drop.

A drizzle persisted, but Nora’s fury had passed and the truckers realized they would make it.

Terror turned to relief, and Barba Lopez laughed into his radio: ``The good thing is the underbelly of my truck is getting a good wash.″

He lay down in the bed behind his seat to read a comic book. And in the next truck, he could see a woman and a boy fast asleep.

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