Storms kill three in US

Heavy snow covered the Northern California mountains and rain and wind hit the US West Coast as a third day of winter storms left at least three people dead and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in California, Oregon and Washington without power.

Heavy snow covered the Northern California mountains and rain and wind hit the US West Coast as a third day of winter storms left at least three people dead and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in California, Oregon and Washington without power.

Forecasters predicted more rain and snow today, but without the severe storms that have pounded the region in recent days. Winter storm warnings were in effect in parts of the region.

A ruptured levee sent a freezing “wall of water” from a rain-swollen canal into the desert town of Fernley yesterday, flooding hundreds of homes and forcing the rescue of dozens of people by helicopter and boat.

No injuries were reported in the flood in the town about 30 miles east of Reno, after a section of the Truckee Canal levee up to 150 feet long broke early on Saturday.

Up to 3,500 people were temporarily stranded and an estimated 1,500 ended up being displaced from their homes. About 25 people remained at a shelter set up at a high school after a peak of about 150 earlier in the day.

Eric Cornett estimated the water was about 2 feet deep and rising fast when he drove away from his home with his wife and three children.

“We saw water coming in the back door and tried to grab as much stuff as possible to save it. The water was rising very quickly and it was scary,” he said.

Two helicopters aided crews in pontoons in rescuing at least 18 people from driveways and rooftops. Residents in fishing boats rescued many more.

By afternoon, the Truckee River water flowing into the canal was diverted upstream, said Ernie Schank, president of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District. As the water receded, Fernley Mayor Todd Cutler said he had reports of damage to at least 300 to 400 homes.

One official suggested burrowing rodents might have contributed to the break in the levee along with the heavy rains, but the cause was not clear.

The National Weather Service recorded 1.91 inches (4.85 centimetres) of rain at Reno-Tahoe International Airport on Friday, a record.

Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons, who visited the shelter and toured the area by helicopter yesterday, declared the county an emergency area. The Federal Emergency Management Agency planned to conduct a damage assessment on Monday.

In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared emergencies in three counties hit hard by the storms.

Remote sensors and ski areas in the high Sierra Nevada had recorded up to 5 feet of snow since Friday morning, and the west side of the Lake Tahoe Basin already had about the same amount by Friday night, the National Weather Service office in Reno said on Saturday.

As much as 9 feet of snow was possible in the Sierra by tonight.

An 80-mile stretch of US Interstate 80 from Reno to Applegate, California, was closed on Saturday night as the fresh wave of snow moved in.

The weather also was blamed for a 17-car pileup that closed the westbound lanes of I-80 near Patrick just east of the Reno-Sparks area on Saturday afternoon.

More than 450,000 homes and businesses from the Bay Area to the Central Valley were in the dark on Saturday, down from more than 1.6 million the day before.

East of Los Angeles, Lindsey Marie Erickson, 25, died after her pickup truck was swept into a flood channel, police said. Rescuers found her boyfriend, Rene Valencia, 36, clinging to a tree.

Authorities said the couple unwittingly drove onto a flooded road in Chino because someone removed a barricade.

The storm also was blamed for the death of a woman killed by a falling tree in Oregon, and a falling branch killed a transportation worker in Northern California on Friday.

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski declared a state of emergency for Umatilla County because of wind damage.

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