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Storm strands tourists, closes park

January 3, 1997

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) _ They waited two years to get in. Then they couldn’t get out.

About 300 of the 2,200 tourists and employees stranded in Yosemite National Park on Thursday won a drawing two years ago for tickets to a traditional New Year’s Eve celebration at the Ahwahnee Hotel.

They couldn’t go last year because a federal budget impasse closed the park, so they got first dibs on the tickets this year.

Then the rain came.

``The party went as planned this year. The worst of the storm didn’t start until about 10 in the morning yesterday,″ hotel clerk Ola Kirk said Thursday.

The revelers got trapped in Yosemite Valley after rain from a series of Pacific storms pushed the Merced River over its banks. The flooding closed highways into the park.

Military helicopters were put on standby in case those inside the park needed to be evacuated. Weather permitting, evacuations could start today.

But Kirk said being stranded wasn’t so bad for the 230 people at the luxurious hotel, many of whom spent time playing board games and reading old newspapers.

``People are very good here. They seem to be taking things as they come,″ said Carol Nystrom, another clerk.

About a mile down the Merced River, about 700 people were stranded at Yosemite Lodge.

``Everyone is safe and warm and dry as they can be. There’s plenty of food and no one is in danger,″ said Chet Brooks, Yosemite Concession Services spokesman.

While park officials asked that everyone stay indoors, visitors could still enjoy some spectacular views of the park.

And Wendy Harrell, 42, a bartender at Yosemite Lodge, was able to get a look at the raging Merced River.

``The river was so fast that large rocks under the water made a booming noise like thunder,″ she said. ``It’s awesome.″

Flooding last closed the park May 16, 1996. The river crested at about 12 feet and overflowed, isolating the park for several days.

``Last night before we evacuated the river gauge station, it was at about 11.8 feet,″ said park spokesman Kendall Thompson. ``There’s talk now to compare this one with 1955, when the river crested to 16 feet. That was the worst one in (the) last 100 years.″

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