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Rock slide cuts community off from Yosemite
June 12, 2006

By Nick Martin

For the residents of a small California county dubbed the "Home of Yosemite," these are worrisome times.

A massive rock slide has blocked the two-lane highway that connects most of Mariposa County to its biggest tourist attraction, Yosemite National Park. It's dire news for a county that gets most of its income from tourism and has lost about $14 million this summer alone.

Publication info
This story originally ran June 12, 2006 in USA Today. To view photos and a map published with the story, go to www.usatoday.com.

What started April 29 as dirt and a few small boulders dropping onto Highway 140 now covers 600 feet of road and continues to grow.

"She's still throwing down boulders as big as Volkswagens," said Debbie Santiago, spokeswoman for the 12-agency emergency team assembled to deal with the rock slide.

The slide has hurt the local economy and forced visitors, residents and park employees to take detours one to four hours long to get into the park.

Early last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency, even before crews announced the road may be closed a year or more.

This week, the state will discuss asking President Bush to declare a federal disaster. That designation could include relief for businesses, said the governor's spokeswoman, Katherine McLane.

"I'm losing half my business right now," said Vickie Lorenzi, owner of River Rock Inn Deli Garden Cafe, a small hotel and restaurant in the town of Mariposa. "You depend on your summer business to carry you through winter. I have the townspeople's heart, which I really am grateful for. But that doesn't keep you open."

There are alternate entrances to the park, but the slide and its unpredictability present other problems. It has grown to the size of 11 football fields and is spilling into Merced River.

If the slide gets bigger, it could dam up the river and flood towns such as El Portal upstream — a situation Allen Johnson, the incident commander, said would be "catastrophic."

If enough pressure builds on the newly formed dam, "more than likely there's going to be some kind of burst," Johnson said. Officials made plans to evacuate residents in some areas on an hour's notice.

Geologists believe the rock slide may have begun as long as half a million years ago but lay dormant until now, Johnson said.

Residents are trying to send the message that their area is still a destination even if getting there takes longer.

"We're all still here, that's all I can tell you," said Miriam Costello, owner of Miriam's Place, a shop in Mariposa. "When you live near a national park, any one of them ... you learn you have to live with nature."

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