Editor's note: This first-hand account of rescuing people from the Jan. 5 flood in Fernley is excerpted from a memorandum written by Rob Holley, law enforcement officer and State Park supervisor of the Lahontan State Recreation Area. It is edited for clarity and length.
By Rob Holley
Nevada State Parks
FALLON - In more than 20 years of public safety, I have never operated in such severe conditions. The initial response required travel with lights and sirens over 30 miles of snow- and ice-covered roads. At this same time, and from the moment of the callout from dispatch, deputies were reporting numerous stranded persons that required a boat for evacuation, and they kept asking when we would be on scene. No boats had yet arrived. It was the longest 30 miles I've ever travelled.
When we arrived at Greenbrook Place in Fernley, it was still dark and well-below freezing. Emergency vehicles, residents and their vehicles, and spectators and their vehicles, clogged every dry street and intersection. Asphalt roads, concrete walks and driveways under the floodwaters were covered with a thin layer of ice - it was incredible how slick and treacherous vehicle and foot travel became.
Fire department personnel had removed a family from an attic. The combined smell of gasoline and sewage filled the air. Slush from the canal water along with coolers, gas cans, garbage, logs and other debris floated through the streets in 3-4-feet of water. We continued in the area for approximately 20 minutes looking for additional victims. The fire department commandeered a canoe and had two firemen checking house to house. Several families remained in their homes, as the waters in this area had receded about 6 inches after the initial flush.
We loaded the boat and drove to the Farm Lane area. The large flow of water at the end of Farm Lane was too fast and not deep enough for our boat. We drove to Jenny's Lane and Shadow Mountain. The sun had not yet come up. Dispatch had received calls for help along Shadow Mountain Drive.
Park Ranger Mark Fox and I were in the boat as Deputy Matt Roman of the Lyon County Sherriff's Office backed my truck down Shadow Mountain to a point where we could launch the boat. The water was up to the bottom of the rocker panel on the truck, so we did not drive further. I used outboard power to back the boat from the trailer into the flooded street.
Again, we could smell sewage in the water and could see periodic spurts from underground sewer lines. Ranger Fox and I loaded a distraught mother and infant and returned to the truck where we passed her to Deputy Roman in the truck bed. The water was still at the truck's rocker panels. We picked up a father, a mother and an infant and returned to the truck to find that the water, in a very short period of time, had risen approx. 18-24 inches, putting the truck out of commission. Ranger Fox left the boat and assisted Deputy Roman in taking the five victims to shore. Two black labs were swimming frantically and trying in vain to climb into the bed of my truck. One swam to the boat, and I grabbed it by the collar and delivered it to shore.
The water had risen dramatically, and now additional victims were coming from their homes. The water temperature was barely above freezing (slush was in the water when we first arrived). With the increased water, hazards were also increasing-poplar trees, cottonwood stumps, telephone poles and freezers, along with a host of smaller household items were floating by in the steady current. The water in one place was over 6-feet deep. Yard fences, fire hydrants and submerged vehicles lurked beneath the water's surface. Houses now had up to 3 feet or more of freezing, filthy, brown water inside.
One female victim froze while attempting to wade to safety. After more than an hour in the cold water, she could no longer move her legs. She nearly fell under as we approached. Ranger Fox and I heaved her into the boat and took her to safety. She could not move and was having difficulty breathing - she could barely speak and was terribly afraid.
While the Huey helicopter from Longhorn Search and Rescue (Fallon Naval Air Station) hovered overhead, the combination of hurricane force winds from the helicopter's propeller, blowing snow, blowing water and wind chill made for, by far, the worst winter conditions I've ever faced. I hugged and sheltered the female victim for what seemed like eternity (probably only 5 minutes). The rescue swimmer and I hooked her and her daughter up. The cables kept fouling around the outboard motor housing and antenna, so I had to use one hand to keep the cables free. At one point, with Ranger Fox, Deputy Roman and I holding the boat, the propeller blast blew the boat (and us) 10 feet.
The flood waters had frozen on the underwater concrete and asphalt. Our feet slid across the iced driveway in front of the garage door like we were on an ice rink. The change in position made the lift difficult (we did not want to swing the victim), so the chopper had to reposition before lifting. Finally the Huey took them to safety. Thankfully the wind was gone!
In the meantime, because of the terrible conditions, Deputy Roman had gained access to the house (inches from flooding) to shelter the already freezing and panicked victims. The helicopter evacuation was performed in two feet of water 20 feet from the house's front door. After the helicopter evacuation, we moved the boat to the leeward side of the garage and tied the bow line to the garage door handle.
While Ranger Fox and Deputy Roman were working through up to 4 feet of water along the front of the houses, I picked up two elderly couples. I had to maneuver into their yards around half-covered trees, fences, Christmas lights, street light poles, flag poles and fire hydrants. All four were exhausted and barely made it in the boat even with overboard steps and help from me.
Ranger Fox and Deputy Roman returned after locating a disabled woman and taking her to another rescue vessel. The water was too deep for them to climb in. I pulled up to a submerged truck and picked them up from the truck's bed.
Ranger Fox and Deputy Roman were extremely cold from prolonged exposure in over waist deep water. Ranger Fox's Gore-tex pants kept the wind off and helped him to continue. Deputy Roman was in his normal duty uniform. He waited for pickup with the elderly couples, as he was beginning to show some signs of advancing hypothermia (uncontrolled heavy shivering, lack of fine motor dexterity and slurred speech). Similarly, though to a lesser degree, Ranger Fox had lost fine motor dexterity. Neither us had feeling remaining in our feet. The bilge pump in the boat had quit working, and 1-2 inches of sloshing water kept our feet wet and cold.
With the truck overcome by the rapid rise in water, and no safe access out by boat, Ranger Fox and I were forced to tie the boat to a stop sign at the corner of Jenny's Lane and Shadow Mountain. All loose items were removed from the truck and boat.
We directly rescued 12 individuals with the state boat and assisted in the rescue of an additional six people. We were one of the first vessels on the scene and operated for more than an hour before daylight in the very worst of conditions - long before vessels from other agencies arrived in the area. Our boat, manned by three rescuers, was able to remove up to four victims at a time. It ran perfectly, which is a testament to our maintenance staff, though it was hard to warm up in sub-freezing temperatures. My patrol truck was overcome in the sudden rise in waters, as was a Lyon Fire command vehicle.
In summary, we did the following:
• Rescued with a state vessel 12 persons, including two infants, one pregnant woman and one lady (along with her daughter) who needed medical attention
• Assisted in the rescue of six persons, including one disabled elderly female
• Rescued four large dogs
I have never in the past and would normally not write a summary such as this, but the confines of the incident report capture neither the emotional or physical demands, nor the skill required of the emergency staff of all involved agencies. I am extremely proud of our efforts, and pleased that the Sheriff's Office called us early on because of our abilities and available equipment.
Both Ranger Fox and I have personally acquired clothing and accessories that enabled us, for about four hours, to rapidly respond and remain safe and effective as rescue operators in conditions such as these. We lost several personal items, including boots and socks (discarded due to contamination), a cell phone and wool hat. We both consider these a small sacrifice for the victims that we successfully evacuated and kept from potentially great harm or even death. We are grateful, also, for the help of Deputy Roman, who not only guided us through an unfamiliar town, but sacrificed long periods in the icy water to ensure the safety of the victims.