Brilliant sunshine broke across Northern California on Sunday as the surge of water pouring out of the mountains breached more levees and turned additional people into refugees.
“It looks like everything is ruined,” said Marie Ferriere of Modesto, who hasn’t been home since rising water from a week’s worth of storms forced her to flee Thursday. “I try not to think about it. … I want to go home, but I don’t know if I have a home.”
Many of the 125,000 people forced from their homes last week are returning as local officials lifted evacuation orders, said state emergency official Steve Martarano. In Marysville, 13,000 residents were told Sunday they could leave shelters and trek back home.
But some were told they might not be able to return home for as long as two months.
And about 2,000 were ordered to evacuate during the night from the town of Meridian along the Sacramento River near hard-hit Yuba City.
On Sunday, Meridian residents and contractors raced to save an elementary school by bulldozing up a 6-foot-high, 3,500-foot-long earthen wall near the building.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve never heard of anything like this,” said Sergio Aceves, a Sutter County employee working on the dike.
Besides some 3,000 people who already had been ordered to evacuate in Modesto, residents were told to leave an additional 100 homes in the Weatherbee Lake area on Sunday.
More farmland also disappeared beneath the muddy tide.
“We got a warning to evacuate last night,” said John Fantazia, who farms near Newman, 80 miles east of San Francisco. “It just scared the heck out of us. We’ve gone through this before, and they said this is going to be worse.”
As much as 40 inches of rain fell on the region last week, while rising temperatures melted dense snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Meanwhile, snow and rain also have devastated parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western Nevada.
California rivers continued surging Sunday as upstream dams were opened to make room in reservoirs for still more runoff water.
President Clinton has issued disaster declarations for large parts of California, Idaho and Nevada.
James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, began a tour of the West’s disaster areas on Sunday at Reno, Nev., where gamblers stranded by flooding finally were heading home.