First came snow and ice in Idaho so heavy that power poles snapped like twigs and a gymnasium roof collapsed. Then the "pineapple express' arrived, a blast of warm air from Hawaii that sent temperatures soaring into the 70s. That sent melting snow crashing into the West's already swollen rivers.
By New Year's Eve, inmates from Nevada's jails were filling sandbags as revelers in Reno's casinos clinked champagne glasses. Less than 24 hours later, the Truckee River had broken its banks, swamping the city's casinos, wedding chapels and hotels with more than a foot of water. Similar flooding and mudslides deluged California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
By Jan. 4, officials had reported more than 20 weather-related deaths and declared a state of emergency in more than 90 counties. Property damage is estimated in the billions of dollars.
Freak storm, yes. But coming on the heels of last winter's flooding in the Northwest, and mudslides just two months ago that killed eight people in Oregon, many people are finding the soggy weather hard to dismiss.
Some meteorologists say the region is now in a 15- to 20-year wet cycle that began in 1994. Disasters are to be expected, but environmentalists warn that urban sprawl, logging and roads have made the land less able to cope.
"Because of the previous dry cycle, a lot of people have gotten very complacent," says Oregon state meteorologist Craig Schmidt. "A lot of people are waking up now."
Andrea Lawrence, president of the Sierra Nevada Alliance and a county commissioner in Mono County, Calif., says planners should use these extraordinary weather events to "get smarter." People should avoid building where it floods, she says. She points to one canyon road in her own county that road crews have already rebuilt three times.
"These rivers didn't do anything they haven't done since water existed," says Lawrence. "We keep blaming natural phenomenon. We need to understand where we live and be more responsible."
What that means is open to debate. In northern California, where some of the worst flooding forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 people, politicians are already calling for the construction of the proposed Auburn Dam near Sacramento. Lawrence disagrees: She agrees that levees along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers need repair but says that existing dams are sufficient.
Rivers need to have fewer constraints, not more, say many environmentalists. "Right now you can see what (Reno) used to be like," says Glenn Switkes of the International Rivers Network, who happened to get stranded in Nevada during the New Year's flood. "Flooding is part of a natural cycle. But when they build dikes and deepen the channel to try to control the river, the flooding is much quicker and affects a larger area."
Activists in the Northwest are also blaming logging and roads for some of the mudslides. In the wake of the Oregon deaths, conservationists have called for a ban on road-building and clearcutting on steep slopes (HCN, 12/23/96).
"The fact that clearcutting increases the chance of landslides is not the news," says David Bayles of Pacific Rivers, one of the groups asking for the moratorium. "The news is that agencies have failed to protect people and the environment."
Meanwhile, the rains have slowed, and life is returning to normal. In downtown Reno, bridges have come back into view, and crews are at work clearing mud and debris, including trees washed down from the mountains. But in many places throughout the West, reservoirs and streams are still at maximum capacity. Anita Fante of California's Flood Center says there have already been a dozen levee breaks along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and there could be more: "It's just kind of nip and tuck right now."
* Elizabeth Manning
Jon Christensen contributed to this report from Carson City, Nev.