It started a year ago today.
The first reports of flooding began making headlines and the National Weather Service issued a flood warning – one of many to follow.
The next day a dam would break, roads would be washed out, and water from melting snow would continue to drain into low-lying areas, flooding homes in several communities until finally swamping the Humboldt River in Elko.
The flood would cause millions of dollars worth of damage, taking everyone off guard.
Today, stacks of sandbags can still be seen in some Elko yards but the threat of another flood is virtually non-existent because of the lack of snow this winter.
The National Weather Service posted a map on its website Monday showing the heavy snowpack and warm temperatures of a year ago. Much of the northern part of Elko County was covered in 1 to 3 feet of snow and temperatures were climbing into the 50s.
A mere two weeks earlier there was so much snow along U.S. 93 the highway had to be shut down. It was this lower-elevation snow that posed an immediate threat, not the typical “snowpack” found nearly every year in higher elevations.
Heavy rain and gusty winds melted the snow quickly.
Water began pouring into Wells at the intersection of U.S. 93 and Interstate 80. Montello, Osino, Ryndon and Spring Creek were among the first communities to report flooded roads. The Kings in Spring Creek had to close because of water entering the store.
“The ground is still frozen so there is nowhere for the water to go,” a National Weather Service spokesman told the Elko Daily Free Press at the time.
Some of the worst damage was to the state highway on either side of Montello, a remote community that was isolated by the washouts. It would take more than four months to repair access east of town. U.S. Highway 93 also had to be closed for three days between Wells and Jackpot.
The flood of February 2017 may not have been a record-breaker but it caused significant damage to roads and homes. We were unprepared because we have a short memory. Floods in 1962 and 1983 caused the Humboldt to crest even higher.
Northeastern Nevada Museum staff recently pulled up an item from our Jan. 25, 1943, edition that only people in their 70s or older might remember:
“For the second time in less than a year, residents of the south side of the city of Elko have been forced to evacuate their homes due to flood waters from the Humboldt River. The river reached flood stage shortly before noon yesterday and went over the top of levees prepared by the city workmen, following the flood of last spring. About 20 families were forced to leave their homes as the flood yesterday surpassed that of the spring of 1942 and rivaled the worst flood in the history of Elko, which occurred early in the spring of 1910.”
The 1943 flood reportedly happened after the North Fork Bridge washed out. We don’t know how many homes were damaged in Elko, but the February 2017 event affected about 60 residences on the south side of town.
Team Rubicon, a national organization of volunteers, arrived after the water subsided to aid in the cleanup.
When warmer temperatures arrived in the spring, the higher snowpack melted slowly and gradually, keeping the Humboldt full but within its banks for the rest of the year. The City of Elko worked with a consultant over the summer to identify fixes to the drainage system, including waterproof manhole covers.
For most residents that was the end of the story. The flood will continue to make news in 2018, however, because southside residents banded together to sue the city for $3.6 million in damages. State Assemblyman John Ellison, who suffered carbon monoxide poisoning after his power was shut off, is among the plaintiffs.
They claim floodgates designed to protect their neighborhood were either removed or not properly maintained. The suit also alleges that a levee constructed at the 12th Street Bridge was determined in 1992 to be inadequate.
Any compensation will depend on what happens in court. But aside from those five dozen residents, nearly everyone else in town is currently talking about how we need more precipitation.
Northeastern Nevada may be prone to flooding every two or three decades, but droughts are all too common.