Brilliant sunshine broke across Northern California on Sunday as the surge of water pouring out of the mountains breached more levees and turned additional people into refugees.
"It looks like everything is ruined," said Marie Ferriere of Modesto, who hadn't been home since rising water from a week's worth of storms forced her to flee on Thursday. "I try not to think about it . . . I want to go home, but I don't know if I have a home."Many of the 125,000 people forced from their homes last week were returning as the state lifted older evacuation orders, said state emergency official Steve Martarano. In Marysville, 13,000 residents were told Sunday they could leave shelters and trek back home.
But many others got no such good news, and some were told they might not be able to return home for as long as two months.
And about 2,000 were ordered to evacuate during the night from the town of Meridian, along the Sacramento River near hard-hit Yuba City.
On Sunday, Meridian residents and contractors raced to save an elementary school by bulldozing up a 6-foot-high, 3,500-foot-long earthen wall near the building.
"I've never seen anything like this. I've never heard of anything like this," said Sergio Aceves, a Sutter County employee working on the dike.
Besides some 3,000 people already ordered to evacuate in the Central Valley city of Modesto, authorities on Sunday told residents to leave an additional 100 homes in the Weatherbee Lake area, emergency official Rex Osborn said.
More farm land also disappeared beneath the muddy tide.
"We got a warning to evacuate last night," said John Fantazia, who farms near Newman, 80 miles east of San Francisco. "It just scared the heck out of us. We've gone through this before and they said it was going to be worse."
As much as 40 inches of rain fell on the region last week, while rising temperatures melted dense snow in the Sierra Nevada, and snow and rain also devastated areas of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western Nevada.
California rivers continued surging Sunday as upstream dams were opened to make room in reservoirs for still more runoff water.
President Clinton had issued disaster declarations for large parts of California, Idaho and Nevada.
James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, began a tour of the West's disaster areas on Sunday at Reno, Nev., where gamblers stranded by flooding were finally beginning to head home after being stranded by high water that closed roads and the airport.
Battered levees in Meridian and other areas were continuing to fail under the pressure of all that additional water, said Martarano of the state Office of Emergency Services.
"There's a massive amount of water coming in from the Sierra - there was so much snow, it was so warm and rainy and the ground was already saturated from the December storms," he said.
Emergency officials also were worried about other threatened regions, including Meridian, the Sacramento River Delta area and the Sacramento airport.
Martarano said scattered reports indicated that at least 1,500 to 2,000 homes - "and probably upwards of that" - had been destroyed.
Four deaths had been blamed on the flooding and storms in California, in addition to 15 in Washington and three in Oregon. One man was missing and presumed dead in Nevada.
Near Sutter, about 200 families sought an unusual refuge in a cemetery.
Richard Tapia had spent three days in the graveyard, where his stillborn daughter was buried in October.
"I'm comfortable with her being here with me," said Tapia. "She's my guardian angel. She keeps us out of trouble."
Crews were working to repair highways and railroads devastated by the flooding.
Highway U.S. 50, a major route across the Sierra Nevada, was cut in five places, with one mudslide covering 300 feet of road to a depth of five feet.
The main link between California and the Reno, Nev., area, Interstate 80, was all but shut down by a cave-in.
And about 200 miles north of Sacramento, Union Pacific railroad tracks had been washed out in 40 places in a 30-mile stretch between Lakehead and Dunsmuir, said railroad spokesman Mike Furt-ney.
East of the Sierra Nevada, the town of Yerington, Nev., was isolated for a second day with only a 10-block area above water, said Nevada Assembly Speaker and Yerington resident Joe Dini.
In Idaho, thousands of people in small communities were still cut off because highways were blocked by wash-outs and land-slides.