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Leaky dam sparks California exodus

Los Angeles, Jan. 15 (Agencies): About 2,500 people were ordered to evacuate their homes in Southern California yesterday when a 32 metre high dam began leaking after two weeks of rain.

Officials declared a local emergency and issued flash flood warnings as they began releasing water from a reservoir at 283 cubic metres per second and worked to shore up the rupture in Prado Dam, near the city of Corona about 80 km east of Los Angeles.

With water levels behind the dam some 6.7 metres above normal, residents of a small housing development, mobile home park and campground were all ordered to leave their homes and offered shelter at a local high school.

Officials say recent rainstorms have cost the state more than $100 million in damage.

Bob Wilson, a spokesman for the Orange county office of emergency services, said there was no immediate danger of the Prado dam bursting. He said Corona police ordered the evacuation after noting rising levels in the Santa Ana river downstream.

'These areas (that were evacuated) are right directly downstream from the dam in a low level flood plain area, and this is the area that would be in the most danger if they had a catastrophic failure of the dam,' Wilson said. 'There wouldn't be enough time to get these people out.'

Wilson said it was not yet clear when residents would be allowed to return home or how much work was required on the 700 metre dam, which was built in 1941. The dam became a local landmark when a spillway was painted with a giant patriotic message during the 1976 American bicentennial celebration.

Though the furious winter storms that began pounding California in mid-December largely relented this week, the state was reeling from record levels of rainfall that triggered flash floods and mudslides, washed out roads and damaged homes.

North of Los Angeles, a hillside saturated by the rain collapsed on Monday, killing 10 people in the seaside community of La Conchita.

Residents of La Conchita were allowed to return to their homes yesterday, but it will take two to four more weeks for water service to be restored and two to seven days for gas and electricity to be turned back on.

Alan Sloan, 33, returned to his rented mobile home yesterday, but he didn't stay long.

'I'm out of here,' the roofing contractor said as he quickly packed his belongings. 'I have no shame in admitting that I'm terrified of that hill, no shame whatsoever. It was a very humbling experience.'

The storms that saturated California also drenched the Midwest, and rivers in parts of Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio were still above flood stage today. The Ohio river had earlier flooded riverbank roads and homes in parts of West Virginia.

Yesterday, the floodgates at Paducah, Kentucky, were closed along the Ohio for the first time since 1997. The river is expected to crest there Wednesday at around 10 above flood stage; in 1997 it rose nearly 17 feet over that mark.

Even though no more rain is expected for several days, Indiana's Wabash river is expected to hit its highest level since February 1985 this weekend and next week south of Lafayette, said meteorologist Chad Omitt.

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