FERNLEY, Nev. - As much as 8 feet of water surrounded hundreds of homes yesterday after a weekend canal rupture, and frigid weather spread sheets of ice over yards and streets, hampering efforts to drain the water.
About 300 homes were damaged when the canal's bank gave way after heavy rainfall produced by the West Coast storm system, which piled snow up to 11 feet deep in the Sierra Nevada.
Tens of thousands of customers lost power in three states. Many in California could remain in the dark for days because the storm ripped down nearly 500 miles of power lines, utility officials said yesterday. More than 215,000 people remained without power in Northern California yesterday.
At least three deaths were attributed to the storm.
Six snowmobilers and two skiers were reported missing in heavy snow in the mountains of southern Colorado, and one hiker was missing in snow-covered mountains in Southern California.
The irrigation canal failure at Fernley released a wave of water into the town early Saturday. The water ravaged neighborhoods, kicking in windows, buckling pavement, and digging a 7-foot-deep gulch.
The canal was temporarily repaired by late in the day, but as much as a square mile of the town was still under water as ice impeded drainage.
"Our hope is over the next 24 hours to get the water out," Fernley Mayor Todd Cutler said at a briefing yesterday morning. "But we still have up to 8 feet of water in some areas. We need to keep the storm drains unclogged to keep the water moving to a wetland."
Scott Huntley, a Lyon County divisional fire chief, estimated that 1,500 people had been displaced. No injuries were reported in the town of 20,000 people about 30 miles east of Reno.
Huntley said officials knew of 18 cases of people rescued from atop homes or cars as fire department and private boats plus four helicopters were put into action Saturday, but he believes there were many more.
"The sheer number of rescues was amazing," Huntley said yesterday.
Despite heavy rain Friday, Governor Jim Gibbons of Nevada said, the canal was not full when the bank failed. "This indicates to me there might have been a structural weakness over the years. Nobody knows and we don't want to speculate at this time," he said.
One possible factor that officials have mentioned was rodents burrowing holes in the earthen bank, which also was involved in a smaller collapse that flooded about 60 Fernley homes in December 1996.
But Ernie Schank, president of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, said yesterday that a geologist had turned up no evidence of burrowing animals near the site of the break.
Martha VanGeem, principal engineer with CTLGroup, a Skokie, Ill., consulting firm, said even a small break could have undermined the rest of the soil and gravel. "They could have caught it early if there wasn't so much rain," she said.
Some residents, yanking out carpet and mud-stained sofas yesterday, complained that officials had done little to prevent the canal break.
"This isn't rain-related," said John Prosser, 58, who was sloshing through the muck. "This is idiot people-related."
Prosser's garage was among the dozens of Fernley structures soaked in the 1996 breach of the century-old canal, which irrigates the region's alfalfa fields. Afterward, Prosser said, he hoped the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, which manages the canal, might strengthen it with concrete. That never happened.
The cause of the most recent failure might never be known, said Schank.
Rescuers in Colorado resumed a search yesterday for six snowmobilers last seen Friday, before the storm dumped about 4 feet of snow near Cumbres Pass, close to New Mexico.
The snowmobilers were two couples from Farmington, N.M., and their two children, ages 14 and 13. Donna Oney of the Colorado State Patrol said 11 search-and-rescue team members and three deputies were looking for them. The search was halted as night fell and was expected to resume today.
Two skiers were missing 40 miles away in the Wolf Creek ski area, Oney said. Wolf Creek had reported 39 inches of snow.
In the mountains east of Los Angeles, authorities searched yesterday for a 62-year-old man who went hiking Friday just before the storm began, San Bernardino County sheriff's spokeswoman Arden Wiltshire said. Searchers last had cellphone contact with him early Saturday, before snow began falling in the area.
Material from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.