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Reno Staggers Back as Flood Waters Recede

Disaster: Residents begin the cleanup and trapped tourists start heading out of town. One couple becomes instant entrepreneurs.

January 04, 1997|MAX VANZI and CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

RENO — First, their luck ran out gambling in Reno. Then their luck disappeared just trying to get out of Reno.

As Nevada's worst flood in half a century shut the airport and left them stranded, siblings Larry Paredes and Delores Paredes-Wilson of Oregon turned their bad luck into a modestly successful gamble.

On Friday, they printed up T-shirts proclaiming "I Survived the 1997 Reno Flood" and hawked them on the muck-covered Virginia Street bridge in the heart of town.

For days, the Truckee River had been rising, and on Wednesday it spilled into the streets. Tourists and residents watched as water poured into downtown, gushed into casino doors and bathed airplanes at the Reno airport in 3 1/2 feet of water.

The staggering flood stranded 1,000 holiday travelers Thursday at the airport, closed businesses and some casinos and sent residents scampering to high ground. By Friday, the rain had stopped, the sun was shining and weary but relieved residents gingerly began to clean up and assess what had happened.

The Truckee River, which bisects the downtown area, overflowed so badly that officials could not even gauge how high the water rose--"because it washed out the gauge," according to Steve Brown, the Nevada manager for the National Weather Service.

On Friday, the brown river, which was still running fast, had receded from flood stage for the first time since New Year's Day and was, in fact, comfortably four feet below street level. Flowing with it were tons of mud, wreckage and tree branches.

But two miles to the east of Reno, the town of Sparks was not as lucky. The Truckee River, which narrows as it passes through Sparks, was still overflowing its banks, forcing thousands of businesses to shut down, according to a Washoe County spokeswoman.

In Reno, as the infrastructure dried out, people tried to resume normal schedules.

Tourists, who were trapped in town when the rising waters closed the airport and most of the highways, began pouring out of town as roads opened. At the airport, both runways opened about 3 p.m.

Even the famed Mustang Ranch brothel, outside of Sparks, was expected to reopen in time for happy hour.

Mayor Jeff Griffin, who has been in Reno for 22 years, said the flooding was the worst he has seen. By local disaster standards, it was worse than 1986 but not as bad as the epic 1955 flood (which resulted in the construction of three dams on the Truckee River--without which this flood would have been more disastrous.)

As gaming venues go, Reno, just across the border from flood-ravaged Northern California, has always been something of a homely relation to the glamorous Las Vegas. But the city has made some recent efforts to polish its image with an enclosed promenade in the middle of the casino district.

And Griffin reiterated the city's slogan Friday when he declared that "the biggest little city is alive and well. There were no injuries, no deaths. The town was well-prepared. We knew it was coming."

In fact, out of dozens of casinos, only four--and one large hotel--closed. One of the casinos and the hotel reopened Friday. The Riverboat, the Comstock and a small casino called the Holiday remained closed.

On Friday night, the Riverboat was ghostly dim--a rarity because it is virtually unheard of for a casino to close in Nevada--as owner Ralph Albright recounted how he was compelled to close at 5 Thursday morning when flood water threatened his electrical system. Several die-hard slot machine players "almost had to be carried out in their chairs," he said chuckling. "One of them said, 'That's my lucky machine! Don't make me leave now!' "

At the Cal Neva Club, a large casino just one block from the river, casino managers said the dealers, players and even the chief executive had piled out into the streets to sandbag the entrances. The casino never closed. "We have loyal customers," said pit supervisor Peggy Stromer.

Business owners and residents alike were confronted with the grimy task of cleaning up. And tourists with no responsibilities--and often nowhere to go--had brand new sights to see. They marveled at the slimy aftermath.

Wingfield Park, which sits in the middle of the river and disappeared for a time during the flood, emerged with debris hanging from the cottonwoods and elm trees.

An outdoor ice rink, which opened a few months ago, was covered in enough dirt to host a motocross event. Small sandstorms skittered across 1st Street, as hundreds of thousands of battered sandbags were pulled back from doorways and heavy equipment scooped up a thick porridge of sludge and rubbish.

For some, it was difficult to believe that the Truckee River that wreaked this havoc is often derided as "the trickle."

Dave Benton surveyed the damage in the White Lace Wedding Chapel, which sits in a building his father owns. As Benton slogged across the carpet of muck in the chapel, he struggled to reconcile his image of Nevada with the reality before him.

"I thought this was a desert," he said.

Times correspondent Michael J. Ybarra contributed to this report.

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