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Crews Battle To Shore Up Failing Levees

Crews desperately shored up failing levees Monday to stem flooding that has already swamped parts of the Central Valley, California’s rich farming region. Good weather elsewhere allowed thousands of people to return home.

At least 28 deaths have been blamed on a series of storms that have hit the West since Dec. 26.

In the Central Valley, farmers feared the floodwaters would damage the winter wheat and other newly planted grains. The flooding has also damaged orchards and vineyards in the region, a major supplier of winter fruits and vegetables to the nation.

Even without further damage, the flood of 1997 will probably be the most destructive in California history, Gov. Pete Wilson said. Preliminary damage estimates from nine of the 42 flooded counties already have hit $775 million. In Nevada, Gov. Bob Miller said flood damage there could reach $500 million.

Sixteen crews in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta worked to shore up some of the region’s 1,100 miles of levees.

The National Guard punched a hole in a levee near the small farming town of Meridian to relieve the pressure. And more than 300 people, including dozens of inmates, filled sandbags and bulldozed mounds of earth into a new, 6-foot wall nearly a mile long to protect the community.

“It’s a race with Mother Nature, but right now we’re ahead,” said Capt. Mark Bisbee of the state Forestry Department.

Many of the 125,000 people evacuated during the flooding have gone home. Thousands of others remained in Red Cross shelters, including 200 people at a Salvation Army center in Modesto.

In Yosemite National Park, wind gusts up to 50 mph toppled trees onto the one road reopened out of the park, trapping 500 employees.