20 years since Flood of ’97
There wasn’t any doubt there would be a white Christmas on Dec. 21, 1996, when 20 inches of snow fell across Carson Valley, knocking out power and clogging roads.
What wasn’t so certain that Christmas was that the following week a warm rainstorm would melt all that snow and more, inundating the Carson Valley on New Year’s Day 1997.
The big snow closed Kingsbury Grade and Spooner Summit, trapping truckers and travelers alike while they waited for the roads to reopen.
By Dec. 29, officials concerned that warm rain storms bearing down on Carson Valley could lead to massive flooding gathered on a Sunday for an emergency meeting.
Then Carson River Water Master Julian Larrouy set the stage for what could happen.
“I’m always afraid when I see rainstorms on top of snow,” he said to R-C reporter Michael Schneider.
Three warm storms in a row were forecast to arrive in the Valley in those last days of 1996, but the first two fizzled, leaving hope that perhaps the Valley would avoid the worst of the flood.
On New Year’s Eve Day, people gathered along the bridge over the East Fork of the Carson River watching the water rise. Logs bumped into the bottom.
That night the third storm arrived, melting enough snow to swell the river to 23,500 cubic feet per second, according to Larrouy — 4,000 more than the flood of 1995.
Floodwaters closed the bridges across the Carson River, including Cradlebaugh on Highway 395, and both the Riverview and Lutheran bridges into the Gardnerville Ranchos, essentially isolating Gardnerville and Minden from the rest of the world.
Flooding along the Walker River closed Highway 395 south of Douglas County, cutting off that route.
In the days before smart phones or high speed internet, residents tuned to KGVM 99.3 to hear Lloyd Higuera provide updates on what was happening around the Valley due to the flooding.
The Nevada Appeal reported that the river crested at 8.4 feet above the 10-foot flood stage, with a peak flow of 12.4 million gallons per minute.
Both Gov. Bob Miller and President Bill Clinton declared Douglas and most of Western Nevada disaster areas as a result.
During a helicopter tour of the area, Miller said “It’s a frightening sight. It looks like monsoon season in Southeast Asia. You can’t even tell the Genoa Lakes Golf Course is a golf course.”
More than 125,000 homes in California and Nevada were evacuated and the total damage reached more than $10 million, the Appeal reported. The flood claimed only one life, Frederick Franklin Pinard, 59, who was working in a front-end loader along the banks of the Carson River when the bank gave way, sweeping him and the 18-ton loader downstream.
Memorial services were held for Pinard in February 1997, though his remains were not found until nearly a year later about a mile from the trailer park he was trying to save.