Tens of thousands of northern California residents remained stranded Saturday as swollen rivers taxed the state’s vast flood-control system, causing levees to break and release torrents of muddy water into rural communities in the state’s Central Valley.
President Clinton approved federal disaster assistance for 37 counties in California and for 13 in Idaho as people throughout the Pacific Northwest tried to mop up after more than a week of stormy weather. Warm winds and heavy rain melted the winter snowpack in the region’s mountains, turning cliffs into waterfalls and flooding valleys. The storms were blamed for 23 deaths in a five-state area.
“The weather forecast is for showers; that’s less than rain. We’re looking ahead to several days that may not be dry, but it’s not getting worse,” said Dan McCanta of the Office of Emergency Services in Yolo County.
State officials continued emergency efforts in Yuma and Sutter counties, where more than 100,000 people were evacuated and the towns of Olivehurst and Marysville were practically submerged. Rescue teams went from “spot to spot” by helicopter and boat to pluck residents from rooftops as the water rose, according to Steve Martarano of the California Office of Emergency Services.
Near Modesto, dairy farmers scurried to move cattle and other livestock to higher ground after some farm animals reportedly perished in the flood.
A break in a levee Friday night inundated about 1,000 houses in Modesto, and at least 3,000 people were evacuated. Statewide, 115,000 people were displaced. More than 40,000 were in in 62 Red Cross shelters, and thousands more took refuge at McLellan, Beale and Mather air force bases.
Martarano attributed most of Saturday’s flooding to the failure of levees, which, with reservoirs, dams, channels and bypasses, are designed to control the flow of water through the farmland of the Central and San Joaquin valleys and on to San Francisco Bay and ultimately into the Pacific Ocean.
As the snow from the Sierra melts and flows into reservoirs and rivers, dam operators must release water to allow reservoirs to absorb runoff but not spill so much that they cause more flooding.
To help save Stockton from flooding, officials planned to punch a hole in the levee to divert water to unpopulated areas. Other levees had been breached Friday night in similar efforts to spare populated areas.