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Rivers flood West, forcing hundreds of evacuations

January 3, 1997

RENO, Nev. (AP) _ Rain and melting snow swamped the West on Thursday, trapping 2,500 people in Yosemite National Park, closing Reno’s 24-hour casinos for the first time anyone could recall, and forcing a helicopter rescue of 100 residents of an Idaho town cut off by a raging river.

High water and mudslides closed major roads in California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, where more than 50 counties have been declared disaster areas since a nonstop string of storms began Dec. 26. At least 15 deaths have been blamed on the weather, and damage is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Up to 7 inches of rain caused the worst flooding in Reno in more than 40 years. The Truckee River swamped motels, restaurants and wedding chapels as it roared down streets carrying off trees, clothes, toys, porches and a barbecue pit. Fifteen hotel guests were rescued via a fire truck ladder after the building was surrounded by roiling water 4 feet deep.

``It seems like a bad dream,″ said Alberto Gazzola as swirling brown floodwaters swept into his La Vecchia Varese restaurant in Reno. ``Fifteen or 20 other businesses are flooded near me. All we can do is watch.″

Sandbags were piled in front of casinos as the water crept closer. Most were closed as a precaution.

``It’s the first time anybody can remember us closing,″ said Pat Martin, a Harrah’s spokeswoman. ``We closed because we think the floodwaters can go higher and we want to play it safe. It’s a strange feeling to see the casinos dark.″

The flooding also shut down state government offices in Reno and Carson City, the Reno-Tahoe International Airport and the Mustang Ranch brothel. Dozens of businesses told employees to stay home.

In Yosemite, the Merced River flooded the park’s three major roads, forcing employees and visitors to hole up in lodges, playing board games, reading old newspapers and drinking coffee.

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

``The waterfalls are unbelievable,″ he added. ``There’s a lot worse places in the world to be stranded in right now.″

In California’s Del Norte County in the northwest part of the state, floodwaters from the Klamath River carried off the Indian-run Golden Bears Casino. The river dumped the casino, a small building that was held up by supports, and three trailers onto a nearby campground, Tribal Chairman Donald Valenzuela said. No one was inside at the time.

In western Idaho, hundreds of people were forced to flee their homes as rivers rose over their banks. Mudslides washed away large sections of road, including a 1,000-foot stretch of the state’s only north-south highway, U.S. 95. It could be days before it is repaired.

The National Guard used helicopters to lift 100 people to safety from the town of Pinehurst along the swollen Little Salmon River, 130 miles north of Boise. At least three other towns were isolated by mudslides or high water.

``All these roads are in narrow river canyons, and there’s no place to go,″ said Bill Dermody, a state transportation spokesman. ``We live in a beautiful state, but roads in narrow river canyons are going to give us trouble.″

Road closures left hundreds stranded at McCall, a ski resort community north of Boise. An air taxi service had seven airplanes in the air Thursday taking people out.

In southwestern Oregon, 40,000 U S West customers were without long-distance telephone service, but rivers were beginning to recede as the storms moved inland.

Three hikers were missing near Stevens Pass in Washington, but three climbers who were supposed to return on Monday were found alive and well on California’s Mount Shasta. Other parts of Northern California reported widespread flooding.

``It’s just as dangerous as can be out there,″ said Jim Kreofsky, a rescue volunteer with the Sonoma County sheriff’s department. ``You’ve got huge whirlpools where a log will go under, then pop out a hundred yards downstream. You have to call it awesome.″

In Reno, Darrol Veronie of Cameron Park, Calif., hit a $1,600 jackpot on a slot machine at the Cal-Neva only moments before the casino began closing.

``I’ve been working on double- and triple-time the last week, and I came here to forget the snow and bad weather,″ said Veronie, a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. employee who has battled downed power lines back home. ``It takes your mind off things gambling, and this is what I needed.″

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