Another major flood along Russian River raises question of what’s to be done
Tetanus shot. Bleach. Protective gloves. Power washers.
R3 Hotel owner Jeff Bridges has the drill down.
So even after 8½ feet of floodwater inundated his Guerneville hotel, bar and restaurant last week, Bridges viewed it as a problem with a solution well in hand.
“This will be my fourth redo at the Triple R, so I just take it in stride,” said Bridges, who started at the downtown resort four major floods ago and bought the place with his partner in 2011. “It will be a total gut job and renovation. But it will reopen bigger, better and more sparkly than before.”
Like many who call the lower Russian River home, Bridges understands the trade-off that comes from settling in the region. Its sun-baked beaches popular with tourists and locals alike belie a long history of giant floods, with this week’s the worst in nearly a quarter century.
“You can’t stop Mother Nature,” Bridges, 58, said, “and, quite frankly, it’s the price we pay to live in paradise.”
It’s a common refrain in the communities along the lower river, where for decades residents and merchants have endured periodic disasters and recovery. People here pride themselves on the grit that allows them to rebound from destruction wrought by a rebellious waterway time and again.
“The community really pulls together in those ways,” said Jeniffer Wertz, a member of the Guerneville Community Alliance and representative on the municipal advisory council for the lower river.
But there is real grief and suffering, as well, particularly among the uninsured and the inexperienced - those who may be newer to the region and perhaps faced the flood unprepared.
Some are reeling from major losses caused by the rampaging floodwaters, which countywide affected an estimated 2,600 homes and businesses, with damage totaling more than $155 million. As usual, the river area saw the worst flooding.
“There’s a lot of other things I’d rather be doing than starting over,” said Rio Nido Roadhouse owner Brad Metzger, 49.
He described it as a slow-motion disaster that swallowed the business into which he and his wife sunk a good deal of their money, time and attention over the past decade. He watched from a friend’s house across the road as the floodwaters rose toward the eaves of the low-lying bar and restaurant.
“One of the most surreal things of my entire life,” he said. “I would not wish this on anyone,” he said.
Yet federal flood loss figures show that Metzger is far from alone.
Sonoma County ranks No. 1 in the state for repetitive losses under the National Flood Insurance Program, accounting for a third of those payments for assistance, totaling nearly $61 million since 1978 - more than half of the payments made to the state’s top 10 repetitive loss communities - according to Federal Emergency Management Agency data.
About 5 percent of unincorporated Sonoma County, or 77 square miles, lies within the 100-year flood plain, the area deemed by FEMA as having a 1 percent chance of a flood in any given year. The Russian River and its tributaries impact the largest swath of that territory, with other streams and water bodies making up the remainder, according to the Sonoma County Hazard Mitigation Plan.
The current document, approved in 2017, lists 3,508 structures in flood zones, including nearly 2,500 homes and 438 commercial or industrial buildings.
Pressure has long been exerted on local officials to curb flood losses on the lower Russian River. Briefly, after the record flood in January 1986, there was some flirtation, theoretical mostly, with the idea of relocating the town of Guerneville, according to former Supervisor Ernie Carpenter.
His tenure representing the west county, from 1981 through 1996, spanned two major floods. The precedent for the idea came from a midwestern town that had been moved from the path of the Mississippi River after repeated, catastrophic floods there.
Though discussed in numerous meetings among county staff members - but never publicly, as far as he recalls - moving Guerneville “was never viable,” Carpenter said.
Geography, of course, is a complicating factor. The lower Russian River cuts a narrow path through a gap in the coastal hills, leaving little room for floodwaters to roam beyond the loose subdivisions and towns on its banks.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, the current 5th District representative, said she was struck by how extensively and forcefully the river had overtaken that landscape. She saw it from a helicopter flight in the hours after the river crested late Wednesday. It sprawled across vineyards, roads and neighborhoods, turning individual homes into islets.