LINCOLN, Calif — The first sun in a week lifted spirits Friday across washed-out Northern California, but runoff from the sodden Sierras continued to tumble into maxed-out reservoirs and rivers, threatening new floods in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.
Eight days of storms--which dumped up to 39 inches of rain in some mountain areas--have displaced at least 55,000 people and caused four deaths. Gov. Pete Wilson has declared emergencies in 37 counties, and on Friday he requested federal declarations to make swamped regions eligible for disaster relief.
In a bit of good news, the clear, cooler weather of Friday should continue to hold over much of the state through the weekend with only scattered showers in Southern California.
Nonetheless, there were plenty of problems around the state Friday, the result of a week of monsoon-like downpour.
* At least 55,000 people remained evacuated along the Feather River north of Sacramento, unable to return to homes and farms that had all but disappeared under a vast muddy lake near the town of Olivehurst. While the evacuees huddled in shelters watching the news, workers scrambled to repair breaks in the Feather River levees and patrol helicopters swept the area with heat-seeking infrared beams to scout out marooned residents in need of rescue.
* National Park rangers led a convoy of 1,000 tourists on a wet but passable road out of Yosemite Valley after water rose so high that stranded visitors had to use boats to travel between lodges. "This is definitely a flood of historic proportions," Ranger Kimberly Cunningham-Summerfield said.
* In Wilton, south of Sacramento on the Cosumnes River, residents who fled flooding Thursday slogged home to find most of the water gone--but plenty of damage left behind. Judy Boone found 28 dead sheep pressed against her fence. Her neighbor Eric Andrews found mud all over his parents' home. "It's almost an invasion of privacy," Andrews said as he cleaned. "The hardest loss was the family pictures, because you can't replace those."
* South of Sacramento, the rain-fed Mokelumne River ripped a half-dozen boats from their moorings and slammed them into a bridge down river. Officials had to bring in a crane to move the boats and--with the river still rising--said they were not sure where to find dry land to put them. Nearly 2,000 residents were evacuated along the Mokelumne.
* The Tuolumne River near Modesto was expected to top 68 feet early this morning--13 feet above flood level. Volunteers pitched in with flatbed trucks and elbow grease to help 3,000 residents in low-lying areas move their furniture to high ground. "People are scurrying," city spokeswoman Renee Ledbetter said. "It's a real good community effort." Flooding did force closure of the sewage plant, but Modesto's water supply remained safe.
* Many roads around Northern California remained closed due to mudslides or washouts. U.S. 50 near Pollock Pines and U.S. 395 north of Lee Vining were expected to remain closed a substantial time due to damage. Interstate 80 over Donner Summit into Nevada reopened Friday. Flood officials warned residents not to be fooled by the nice weather on Friday and expected this weekend.
Friant Dam spilled so much water downstream that at peak points, three times the normal flow pulsed through the San Joaquin River. "I've never seen water go over the spillway like this," said Frank Verduzco, who has lived near the north fork of the river all his life.
All that water raced straight downstream--aiming right for the farming town of Mendota about 30 miles northwest of Fresno.
On its way, the river jumped its banks and quadrupled in width, swamping half the town of Friant. By midafternoon, only the roof lines of the worst-hit houses were visible, and the state Fish and Game hatchery was submerged.
Dreading the coming deluge--but knowing there was nothing he could do to stop it--Mendota City Manager Zak Gonzalez began dialing for help, calling up his state assemblyman, his congressman, anyone who might be able to produce some sandbags before the river hit town after dark. "Even if they need to be air-dropped," he pleaded, "we need them right now."
Up the San Joaquin Valley, the Tuolomne River coursed along at least seven feet above flood level--and rising. "It's very swollen, very dangerous, and moving very fast," city spokeswoman Renee Ledbetter said. Anticipating trouble, Modesto evacuated nearly 4,000 residents along the Tuolomne.
While the main drama shifted south, the northern regions that had been inundated Wednesday and Thursday still had their share of woes. As Steve Martarno of the Office of Emergency Services put it: "There's stuff going on everywhere even though the weather is getting better."