A rainstorm that hit the region on December 30 and lasted until January 3 unleashed the Flood of 1997, the most devastating flood that Northern Nevada, Eastern California and Southern Oregon had seen in nearly a half century, wreaking devastation on communities while claiming two lives.
It was supposed to be my day off, but by mid-afternoon I was at work coordinating drivers and vehicles to help with the evacuation of people trapped in the flood zone as the Truckee River jumped its banks. This wasn’t how I had envisioned spending the first day of January.
Prior to this, I’d been on the phone with Kyle’s mother. Slightly panicked, she was in the process of leaving her and her husband’s home in Talent, Oregon because of the flooding they were experiencing.
As we were talking, the neighbor’s home slipped off its foundation and into the nearby Bear Creek. I told her to grab up her valuables and to get out immediately, that everything else can be replaced.
She, her husband, Kyle’s brother and his sister escaped to safety. As for Kyle, who was only four at the time, he was with Mary and me at the time. I should have known that this was only the beginning of a larger, longer and exhausting event.
After establishing a command point at 85 Keystone, some four blocks from where the river was raging, we had pulled nine-people to safety who found themselves being flooded out along Riverside Drive. The street runs between Booth and Ralston, along the river.
While we were loading folks up to move them away from the danger, the Reno Fire Department was engaged in a rescue of at least ten kayakers who thought the flooding Truckee would make a wonderful play ground. What made is so dangerous is the fact that the water was racing out of Lake Tahoe at about 2,200 cubic feet per second – 17 feet high, five feet above flood stage and carrying with it bits of houses, entire cars and parts of the upstream forest.
Around 11 p.m., I had only two drivers standing-by to help with evacuations and I sent the dispatchers home for the night. Shortly after that the Reno Police closed down Mill Street east of U.S. 395 as well as Longley Lane and Rock Blvd. That told me that Reno-Tahoe International Airport was now underwater.
I didn’t leave until 3 a.m., only to return by 8 a.m.
The following day, I had a smaller team of drivers staged on Keystone again awaiting directions. By that time, we had learned that the Sparks industrial area was under five-foot of water and that one of CitiLift’s major client, High Sierra Industries, south of the Rattlesnake Mountain area was also underwater.
Eventually, I was instructed to move our command point to Second and Winter Streets. We had watched all morning long as the river slowly crept towards us, damaging one business after another, never quite reaching our newly established safe-zone.
It was about 11 a.m. when I got a call from a RFD Battalion Chief. He told me that they needed us to caravan to Swope Middle School where the Sierra Chapter of the American Cross had established an evacuation center. Evidently, some of the evacuees reported the odor of gas.
Within five minutes, I had vehicles lined up and waiting for our escort, an RPD Humvee. When we drove up across the street from the school, over four-dozen people were milling about in the school yard.
For the first and only time during the entire three-day ordeal I had to “pull rank and take name” as some fool was standing in front of the school puffing away on a cigarette. When I asked him to put the cigarette out, he told me where to stick it, further informing me that he was in charge of his people and that I had no say in the matter.
Fortunately, the police officer that had escorted our caravan to the school instructed the guy that I was indeed in-charge and I only had to say the word, and a ride free-of-charge could be arranged to the local lock-up. The officer pointed out that the situation to him was no longer a shelter or gas leak problem, but a transportation problem, thus leaving me to call the shots.
The man immediately snuffed his butt out and said nothing more. Secretly, I was happy he didn’t call mine or the officers bluff.
First, we loaded everyone who was able to walk. Some of them argued that they didn’t want to go and were told the same thing – which again ended any arguing. Since we had only one person using a wheel chair, I rolled him into my smaller van.
We moved to a designated point two blocks away to await the all-clear. A minute after the word came down that we could return to the school; a man in one of the vehicles suffered a heart attack.
Since we had an ambulance from REMSA in tow, they were able to being treatment of the man and get him to the hospital. Come to find out he’s been suffering chest pains since the night before. He survived the heart attack.
The most harrowing event took place when we were summoned to a trailer park off of Dickerson Road, where an evacuation would become a rescue. When we arrived, the police were gathered about 100-feet from a trailer that had an elderly woman standing, frantically waving at them from the doorway.
Checking in, I learned they were waiting for the Swift Water Rescue Team to arrive and help pull her to safety. As we watched, the trailer’s wooden steps were swept away, causing the woman to panic worse than she had been.
Before long the trailer began shifting from it’s foundation. We didn’t have time to wait for the team and since we had the a high-clearance vehicle, I decided it was ‘now or never,’ when it came to getting the woman out of the trailer.
“If you don’t want to do this,” I told the driver, “you don’t have to. Jus’ get out of the seat and I’ll do it, okay?”
Without hesitation, he closed the doors to the vehicle, rolled down his side window, slipped the van into gear and slowly drove forward. He already had a plan in his head and it was the same as mine.
The water pushed the van back and forth, but failed to cause it to float, which was the biggest concern we had. Should the van begin to lose traction, we would have been force to back away and watch as tragedy took shape.
The driver (whose name I cannot remember) positioned the van as close to the door way as he could. He then leaned out the window and grabbed the woman by the arms and jerked into the window.
I initially had him by his pants belt to keep him anchored, next thing I know, I had her in my arms as we spilled onto the floor of the vehicle.
Without hesitation, the driver released the emergency brake, pulled the gear lever into reverse and backed out the way we had come in. As we reached safety, the woman’s trailer was struck by a log the size of telephone, causing the trailer to buckle, twist, roll-over and vanish into the muddy waters.
The woman, wet, and shivering from both fright and cold was taken to the hospital, where she was treated for shock and exposure. The driver and I returned to our assigned command post, knowing we’d done the right thing despite of the risk to ourselves and the van.
We caught real hell from the police, who wanted to arrest the pair of us for endangering our lives as we had.
Shortly after 5 p.m., January 2, we were released from our duty and we all returned to the yard. By the next day, the once swollen Truckee had slipped back between its banks and the clean up began for the towns and burghs affected by the flooding.
The following couple of days I attended several meetings meant to debrief those who had participated in the emergency and wrote ‘thank you’ notes to the businesses that supported my drivers as well as awarded certificated to those who helped in the evacuations. Much to my surprise and pleasure, nearly three months later I was given a certificate by my bosses, thanking me.
Today, exactly two-decades later, the weather forecast is sunny and a high of 42 for the in the Reno/Sparks area.