Yosemite empties ahead of flooding; tourists forced to make other plans

Steady rain fell over Yosemite early Saturday afternoon, a hint of the deluge that is expected to dump more than a foot of rain on the Sierra and push the Merced River well over its banks this weekend.

The National Weather Service expected the Merced River, which runs through the heart of Yosemite valley, to crest early Sunday afternoon around 17 feet, well below the crest above 23 feet in the 1997 flood that filled the valley with water and destroyed campgrounds.

This time will be different, however, and not just because the river’s crest will be lower, Yosemite spokeswoman Jamie Richards said.

“We learned a lot in 1997,” she said.

Since then, Richards said, the park has raised the roads and improved drainage and cleaned up culverts, as well as raised and relocated key buildings like the visitor center and store.

Just before the park’s store closed at 3 p.m. Saturday, a few of the remaining 100 or so park service and Aramark employees finished their last-minute shopping. All visitor services in the valley are closed until further notice. Aramark is the private concessionaire that operates the hotels, grocery store and shops in Yosemite valley.

Everyone remaining in the valley was asked to remain indoors after 5:30 p.m. to wait out the storm.

Richards stressed that the entire park is not closed – just the valley. Visitors still can access hiking trails near Wawona and Hetch Hetchy, and Tioga Road is open to pedestrians.

Getting around the valley flood could become problematic Sunday. The National Weather Service, which reported the Merced River had risen to 4 feet at the Pohono Bridge by 2 p.m., said the river is forecast to rise above the 10-foot flood stage Sunday morning and then up to 17 feet by early Sunday afternoon.

When the river rises to 9 feet, the Chapel and Cooks meadows will begin filling with water, followed by flooding of the Lower Pines and North Pines campgrounds at 10 feet.

The sewage pumping relay station at North Pines campground will become flooded when the river rises to 11.5 feet, and the Northside and Southside drives will become flooded and will be closed to traffic when the river rises to about 12.5 feet, the weather service said.

Earlier Saturday afternoon at the intersection of Wawona Road and Glacier Point Road, a ranger guarded the stop sign and orange cones signaling the road closure. Emergency lights flashed on his SUV. A few cars drove up and were turned away.

Snow dusted the ground on either side of the road. Rain collected in puddles on the uneven roads, splashing onto the cars that drove toward and away from the valley.

At Tunnel View, fog cast a haze over a usually picturesque view with Half Dome in the distance. Closing in on the valley on Northside Drive, a cloud parted, bringing a surging Yosemite Falls into grayscale focus.

Arrangements were made to house Yosemite employees outside the park. The Red Cross set up The Lodge at Tenaya as the first evacuation shelter for Yosemite employees.

Regional general manager Paul Ratchford said up to 100 Yosemite employees could end up there Saturday night. By nearly 1 p.m., 10 employees had checked in and another bus of employees was on the way.

In a large room at the lodge, 55 olive green U.S. Army cots with red-and-white Red Cross fleece blankets were lined up in rows. Ratchford said more cots could be set up in another room across the hall.

Julie Fullmer, marketing coordinator for the lodge, said the next evacuation shelter would be EV Free Church in Oakhurst, but any Yosemite employee with pets or private vehicles would be sent there so the lodge doesn’t get too packed.

Nonessential employees were being sent home Saturday afternoon, Aramark’s Lisa Cesaro said.

Red Cross officials were preparing in Oakhurst for a possible evacuation of Yosemite employees, said Bob Hunting, a member of the Community Center of Oakhurst board of directors. Hunting said the Red Cross dropped off emergency supplies Friday night, including cots and blankets.

In an evacuation, Hunting said, breakfast, lunch and dinner would be served by the Kiwanis and Rotary Club. A local Starbucks in Oakhurst is prepared to provide coffee for evacuees.

The winter storm forced some visitors to change their plans.

Kathy and David Rouggly drove in Friday afternoon from the Bay Area for Kathy’s birthday. They stayed Friday night at Yosemite Southgate Hotel and Suites and plan to stay at Tenaya Lodge on Saturday night.

She said they planned to take a sleigh ride Saturday afternoon at Fish Camp. But they got word last Monday that it was canceled because of heavy rain and lack of snow.

Instead, the couple hope to go snowshoeing or maybe to Bass Lake. “We’re just kind of winging it,” David Rouggly said. “We’ll make the best of it.”

Brandon Shapiro, Yosemite Southgate assistant manager, said many people mistakenly expect significant flooding in Oakhurst. He said many people have called to cancel their reservations.

Down the road at Visit Yosemite Madera County, volunteer Gary Orr said a few tourists came in Saturday morning wondering what to do because Yosemite valley is closed.

Orr remembers the 1997 flood. He said his brother barely made it out after the water rose so high that a fish got in his cabin.

“It was pretty scary,” he said. “The river rises so fast.”

Hector Hernandez and his friend Raúl Ceseña walked into the visitors center to ask for activity suggestions. The Tijuana residents said they are flight attendants for the Mexican airline Volaris and found out a few days ago that they would fly into Fresno. They arrived at 2 a.m. Saturday and slept a few hours before deciding to make a last-minute drive up to Yosemite.

“It was going to be our first time (at Yosemite),” he said in Spanish. “But it won’t work out now.”

He said they fly back Sunday morning at 1 a.m. and would see what they could do for a few hours instead.

Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo