A former Sonora High School wrestling coach and Tuolumne County resident is missing after his vehicle was found a half-mile from a washed-out section of Highway 132 on Friday.
Widespread storms that battered the Mother Lode on Thursday damaged local infrastructure from the leaking Moccasin Creek Dam to hundreds of feet of Highway 132 in Coulterville, Mariposa County, that was swept away by flooding.
A 2015 black Toyota Avalon driven by John Honesto, 67, a resident of La Grange near Don Pedro reservoir, was found buried in sand and debris downstream from the highway wash-out on Friday by Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office deputies and search and rescue officials, his daughter, Nathalie Honesto, 26, said.
As of Friday night, John Honesto was still missing.
John Honesto was previously employed as a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officer in Stockton before his retirement about 10 to 15 years ago.
In his retirement, John Honesto pursued teaching as a passion project and was an assistant wrestling coach at Sonora High School from about 2005 to 2009, and also served as a substitute teacher in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties.
“You ask any of those kids at the schools that he substituted in. He was pretty much the favorite for the stories he tells,” his wife, Lynn Honesto said.
John Honesto was last seen by his wife at about 6:30 a.m. Thursday morning at their home in the Lake Don Pedro area, when he left for a substitute teaching job at Greeley Hill Elementary School. Nathalie said that her father’s vehicle was last seen by a woman who worked at an area post office where John stopped on the way home. The woman had been driving behind him in the pouring rain at about 1:30 p.m. in stalled traffic, but she turned around when no one appeared to be moving, Nathalie Honesto said.
At about 9 a.m. on Friday, she and her fiance notified a Mariposa County Sheriff’s deputy that was manning a road closure near the gaping chasm on Highway 132 about her father’s absence, she said.
The Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office enlisted resources from a helicopter, a swift water search and rescue team, and dogs to search the area after the vehicle was located, filled with sand but without an occupant, Nathalie Honesto said.
Nathalie said deputies were hoping that John Honesto was “injured on the hillside” and still awaiting assistance.
“He’s the person you go to if you have any problems. He's the one. He's your safety net. He’s always able to help,” Nathalie Honesto said.
Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Kristie Mitchell would not confirm the names of two people reported missing as a result of Thursday’s storm, but noted that they were two separate incidents.
Mitchell said a search had been initiated in north Mariposa County, in the Coulterville, Greeley Hill and Lake Don Pedro area for a man, and for a woman in south Mariposa County.
As of Friday afternoon, Mitchell said neither had been located.
National Weather Service meteorologist Courtney Obergfell said that over 72 hours, from 5 a.m. on March 20 to 5 a.m. on March 23, 4.03 inches of rain fell in the Sonora area. But the destructive impact of the rushing, swollen creeks and waterways throughout the county were the result of “a lot of rain in a really short time” that caused the runoff of precipitation at high elevations down the mountainsides.
At about 5,000 feet elevation, she said, some areas saw as much as five to seven inches of rain.
It was the cumulative impact of rain falling at the high elevations, not snow, she said, which caused the overflowing pulses of water to be seen throughout Sonora and at the Moccasin Creek Dam. The high water levels were not exclusively due to snowmelt, she said, describing the snowpack as “still intact” and like “a sponge” on the rain
The rain caused “a little bit of snow melt but not enough to make a significant dent on the snowpack itself,” she said.
The San Andreas area saw about 3 inches of rain total over a 72-hour period from March 20 to March 23.
“Two bursts of precipitation” expected overnight on Friday and on Saturday will be a colder system dropping between .25 and .5 of an inch of rain and likely would not create the same flooding chaos as the prior storm.
“We shouldn't see the same kind of runoff problems we saw. This is a much colder system and weaker,” she said.
The potential collapse of the earthen Moccasin Creek Dam was initially described as “imminent” when water leaked from its downstream side, but by the time the rain ended, the dam remained intact.
State officials planned to conduct a fish-saving operation Friday night to salvage some of the 1.5 million fish at the Moccasin Creek Hatchery that had been threatened or killed by the overspill of the Moccasin Creek Dam, California Department of Fish and Wildlife Peter Tira said.
“It's not a good situation for fish survival. There's no running water, the water has lots of debris,” he said.
The Moccasin Creek Hatchery is a medium-sized hatchery compared to the 22 fish hatcheries located throughout California. Tira estimated the loss at $750,000.
The hatchery houses about 100,000 pounds of rainbow trout, California golden trout, brook trout, brown trout and Pilot Peak Lahontan cutthroat trout, in various stages of development (eggs, fingerlings, and full-grown). The trout are raised for recreational fishing in the local area, Tira said.
During the storm, excess water pouring over the top of Moccasin Creek Dam flowed into the hatchery and inundated it, spilling several thousands of fish over the sides and into muddy streams flowing toward Don Pedro Reservoir, Tira said.
“You can throw a rock from [the hatchery] and hit the dam,” Tira said, and added that the currents flowing through the elevated concrete raceways, or long, narrow troughs where the fish reside, were interrupted when the water systems at the Moccasin Creek Dam were put out of operation. To save whatever fish were alive, transport trucks with aerators would transport them to Don Pedro Reservoir, he said.
Tira had previously estimated “a total loss” of fish at the hatchery, but declined to estimate the amount of surviving trout until the operation had been conducted.
Tira said there was no set date to reopen the Moccasin Creek hatchery, but the Department of Fish and Wildlife was “identifying resources at other hatcheries from eggs to fish to get the hatchery running” again.
There was “not a catastrophe in terms of infrastructure,” he said.
Trout Fest, a recreational fishing event scheduled for April 14 at the Moccasin Creek Hatchery, has been canceled, he said.
County seeks state financial assistance
Local and state officials are accounting for and evaluating the widespread toll of road and infrastructure damage.
Tuolumne County Supervisor John Gray has drafted a proclamation for a local state emergency to address road damages throughout the county, and potential damages to the Columbia ditch, flooding throughout Belleview Elementary School and damages to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Deputy County Administrator and Office of Emergency Services Coordinator Tracie Riggs said.
The proclamation must be brought before the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors within seven days before it expires, she said.
“They can’t access that type of funding unless we have a proclamation in place,” Riggs explained, but noted the extent of the damage to county infrastructure was still being tabulated.
If the California Governor or if the state office of emergency services director were to issue a secretary's concurrence for the proclamation, it would give the county access to disaster assistance at 75 percent reimbursement for all eligible costs, she said.
Eight million dollars in damage still remains from storms that struck Tuolumne County in January and February 2017, she said, and the county was working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for those projects.
As of Friday afternoon, Ferretti Road in Groveland remained closed from Pine Mountain Lake Drive to Mueller Drive, due to erosion of the fill under the road, Priest Coulterville Road was closed due to a washout of the road approach just before the box culvert at Jackass Creek, and Wards Ferry Road was closed from Thiel Road to Powell Ranch Road.
The erosion of a hillside and the dissolution of a culvert on Marshes Flat Road would keep the road closed on the Highway 49 side for the time being as well, Riggs said.
Red Hills Road, Sims Road and Bell Mooney Road have all been opened following the storm.
Deputy director of county roads Duke York said in a phone message Friday afternoon that his office was still in the process of assessing storm damage.
Caltrans District 10 Public Information Officer Warren Warren Alford said Highway 49, from the junction with Highway 120 in Tuolumne County to Bear Valley Road in Mariposa County, was closed, and “likely to be closed for a while.”
A river that runs alongside the highway had carved out dirt underneath the road, and though from the surface it appeared normal, the entire roadway would have to be rebuilt.
At the Highway 132 road closure from Granite Springs Road to Piney Road in Mariposa County where John Honesto’s vehicle was found, Alford said the heavy water flow had broken off a culvert and carried it a half-mile downstream.
The traffic delays and accidents that characterized Thursday’s storm also carried over into Friday when a La Grange resident drove their 1999 Dodge Ram 2500 into a washed out section of road on Ranchito Drive, west of Carrillo Way in La Grange.
CHP officer Olga Boenisch said the accident occured within Tuolumne County, but she was not aware if the driver of the vehicle knew about the 10-foot deep, and 30-foot wide chasm.
According to a CHP press release, Douglas W. Sandlin, 56, of La Grande was driving his pickup truck westbound on Ranchito Drive west of Carrillo Way at about 50 miles per hour at about 5:50 a.m. on Friday. Sandlin traveled through a set of cautionary signs blocking the road and failed to notice the road ahead of him had washed away.
The vehicle became airborne as it traveled into the wash-out and struck the opposing side of the road before it landed on the driver’s side.
Boenisch said the man was able to get out of the vehicle and call 911.
The man sustained major injuries and was transported by ground ambulance to Sonora Regional Medical Center.
Alcohol and drugs are not suspected as a factor in the collision.