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Evacuations from flooding over 100,000; helicopters rescue motorists

January 4, 1997

LINCOLN, Calif. (AP) _ About 115,000 Northern California residents are being kept away from their homes today, many stuck in shelters set up in schools, churches and Army bases as flooding continues to plague much of the West.

Helicopters rescued marooned motorists and plucked stranded farmers from rooftops, sometimes under harrowing conditions.

``There were wires at the tops of the trees when we rescued one man and an older woman from a car,″ said U.S. Coast Guard petty officer Dan Sweetser, who was in a helicopter that rescued five people in Olivehurst. ``They were up to their necks in water.″

President Clinton declared northern Nevada a major disaster area Friday following days of rain that sent rivers over their banks in the Reno and Carson City area.

Governors of five Western states have declared a state of emergency in more than 80 counties since being deluged with snow and rain in a series of nonstop storms that began on Dec. 26. At least 23 deaths have been blamed on the storms. The governors of California and Idaho appealed for federal disaster help.

The Western storms blocked major highways in California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Boulders the size of a house crashed onto a Sierra Nevada highway. California’s scenic coastal Highway 1 was cut in at least four places.

Getting trapped for three days in a Yosemite National Park lodge with sporadic power and no running water has given screenwriter Brian Strasmann plenty of ideas for his latest project.

Even before he got stranded in the park due to massive flooding, he was working on a movie script about a machine that creates natural disasters.

``It will have a lot of good stuff straight from Yosemite,″ said Strasmann, among the 900 tourists who snaked out of the Yosemite Valley in a car convoy on Friday.

Some casinos in Reno removed sandbags and reopened, as did the Reno/Tahoe International Airport after removing up to 4 feet of water from the runways. It may take until Sunday for all stranded travelers to catch a flight home.

South of Reno, residents of the Carson Valley were mopping up after floods damaged at least 100 homes and turned the area into a vast lake.

Fred Altmann cut short a ski vacation to Sun Valley, Idaho, to return to his flood-damaged house in Reno across the street from the Truckee River, which reached record flows Thursday before subsiding Friday.

``The amount of mud is incredible. It has to be a couple of feet deep in places,″ he said. ``We ended up with 8 1/2 feet of water in the basement and 3 feet on the main floor.″

In Sutter County, north of Sacramento, mandatory evacuations were ordered for all but a northern quarter of the county, forcing more than 60,000 residents from their homes.

Tamara Null of Yuba City and 12 of her family members were among hundreds evacuated to a shelter at Yolo County Fairgrounds in Woodland.

``Our house burned down in August. We were just starting to get it rebuilt and now we’re flooded,″ she said. ``I’m getting used to this.″

Some 40,000 Yuba County residents were evacuated Thursday when the Feather River overflowed its banks.

At a dairy outside of Olivehurst in Yuba County, 350 stranded cows bleated at waters rising around them, and owners said they expected to lose the animals. Wet rats huddled in the middle of the street.

Flood waters spilled over a levee on the north fork of the Mokelumne River 20 miles south of Sacramento and swept a marina and 20 boats downstream, ramming them into a bridge.

In the Sacramento River Delta town of Rio Vista, Tom Sanchez watched workers build an earthen berm around his house in an attempt to save it from the rising water.

``I’m thinkin’ it may go higher,″ Sanchez said.

Another 12,000 Sacramento County residents were kept away from their homes as the Cosumnes River continued to swell.

In Idaho, the flooding subsided a little but thousands of residents remained stranded for a third day because of washed-out roads.

Seattle had counted 97 mudslides by Friday afternoon, and at least 40 homes had been evacuated. A Capitol Hill townhouse has been slowly sliding toward Interstate 5. The house moved four feet Friday.

``Our neighbor rapped on the door and said `Evacuate. Our houses are slipping,‴ homeowner Penny Fukui told KIRO-TV. ``We grabbed our two cats, my two wedding rings and out the door _ nightie underneath and everything.″

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