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Torrential rain, wind lashes the North Bay, bringing flooding, power outages and water rescues

A devastating “bomb cyclone” pummeled the West Coast Sunday, leaving North Bay residents to scramble from rising waters to dry ground, water rescue crews to pluck stranded individuals to safety and tens of thousands of others to sit for hours in the dark without power. It was the most powerful storm in more than a generation, experts say.

A torrent of rain, fueled by what meteorologists described as an “atmospheric river,” wreaked havoc starting Saturday night, worsening throughout the day before easing locally Sunday evening.

At a time when so many have prayed for rain during a drought-stricken year, the storm surpassed its forecasted strength, unleashing driving sheets of rain throughout the day. Even in the late afternoon, as rains appeared to slacken in Santa Rosa — which recorded nearly 8 inches over a 24-hour period beginning at 5 p.m. Saturday — the weather service predicted another 1 to 2 inches for parts of Sonoma County.

“It’s likely there will be records set, definitely,” NWS meteorologist Jeff Lorber said Sunday evening.

Forecasters, though, plan to wait until early Monday to confirm records since rain was still continuing to fall Sunday night.

Sonoma County rainfall totals, from 5 p.m. Saturday to 5 p.m. Sunday, were: 7.83 inches in Santa Rosa; 7.19 inches in Rohnert Park; 4.26 inches in Petaluma; and 4.76 inches in Healdsburg.

The Sonoma Valley region recorded 8.55 inches, and Venado, in the county’s western hills north of Guerneville, had 8.92 inches.

According to the San Francisco-based Golden Gate Weather Services, which maintains the Bay Area Storm Index, Sunday’s was the strongest storm in the Bay Area in 26 years.

Fierce accompanying winds toppled power lines and trees, splitting the roof of a Guerneville home and damaging vehicles elsewhere. And, as many as 25,000 Sonoma County homes and businesses lost power during more than a dozen separate outages, according to Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

By Sunday night, that number had been decreased to just over 15,000 customers.

The “bomb cyclone” is a rare meteorological event. It forms when air pressures drops sharply, strengthening the incoming storm. The result: Deep tropical moisture thousands of miles away in the Pacific Ocean creates a high-powered ribbon of moisture known as an “atmospheric river.”

The weekend storm stretched from Oregon to central California, as howling winds and driving rain triggered mudslides, floods and snow in some mountain passes.

In Sonoma County, the downpour replenished, at least for the moment, waterways sharply diminished by the long dry summer and the lengthy drought. A water level gauge on the Russian River in Guerneville showed the river spiking from less than 6 feet to nearly 12 feet by 2 p.m.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the river’s level will more than double that amount by Monday morning, but doesn’t anticipate any river flooding. The National Weather Service maintained flash flood warnings for urban areas and small streams in Sonoma County throughout the day and until at least 6 p.m. on Sunday.

Forecasters warned it’s too early to measure the storm’s impact on the drought in Sonoma County. Any temporary relief the rains brought to this wildfire-prone region came at a cost as the storm’s intensity resulted in significant amounts of chaos and damage.

The day saw several rescues by boat, as authorities raced against rising water and responded to emergency calls.

Around 11 a.m., Geyserville firefighters saved three men, one woman and a dog from a homeless encampment on an island in the Russian River after the surrounding waters threatened to overwhelm the small land mass.

“They didn’t expect the waters to rise as quickly as they did,” Cloverdale Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Rick Blackmon said of the encampment residents.

South of the intersection of highways 121 and 12 near Schellville, firefighters rescued seven men in their mid-20s who were trapped by an overflowing creek, possibly while on a duck-hunting trip, according to Schell-Vista Fire Protection District Chief Mike Mulas.

Officials hunted for a suitable boat to cross the floodwater, reaching out to both the U.S. Coast Guard and other local duck hunters, according to a supervisor at RedCom, the county’s dispatch agency.

Ultimately, though, rescuers secured the stranded group using a flat-bottomed boat, which swimmers from a swift water rescue team towed across the deepest parts of the floodwater.

In a section of Santa Rosa’s Bennett Valley neighborhood, firefighters went door to door just after midday to warn residents about an evacuation order for the area of Tachevah Drive and Neotomas Avenue.

Five residential units and three garages in the evacuation zone flooded as the Lorna Dell Creek escaped its banks around midday, according to Santa Rosa Fire Department Assistant Fire Marshall Paul Lowenthal.

Water levels in the buildings reached as high as 8 to 12 inches, he said.

Michael Leavitt, 34, who fled with his family Sunday from a flooded apartment building along Tachevah, said water in his backyard was as high as his knees. Leavitt and his family rushed to move their belongings upstairs before leaving their unit to spend the night at a hotel.

“It’s terrible. The bottom floor of every unit is ruined,” Leavitt said as other tenants evacuated in the rain.

About a dozen residents of the apartment building were evacuated.

The Santa Rosa Fire Department lifted an evacuation order for the area just before 7 p.m. Sunday.

High volumes of water flowing unencumbered out of the Glass Fire burn scars shocked the city’s creek system and the undue pressure flooded smaller waterways like Lorna Dell, Lowenthal said. The rain did not cause significant landslides in the burn scars, but it did create a number of small mudslides, he said.

Santa Rosa recorded 58 flooding incidents throughout the city, ranging from backed-up drainages to flooded roadways and sidewalks, Lowenthal said.

The Sonoma County Office of Education announced the Bennett Valley Union School District would be closed Monday because of the flooding. Two other school systems will be shut down today: Guerneville School District and Montgomery Elementary School District in Cazadero, just north of Monte Rio.

Along rural roads like Highway 116 or River Road, vineyards were underwater and road shoulders flooded.

And posted road signs warned motorists of flooding in streets that were just barely passable.

In Santa Rosa, the flooded roads included Old Redwood Highway, Fulton Road and Bennett Valley Road. Other rural streets, such as Woolsey Road and Slusser Road, were shut down.

A motorist who drove around law enforcement personnel as they were closing Slusser escaped from her sedan, but floodwaters eventually rose to the car’s roof and threatened to submerge it completely, according to the California Highway Patrol and a Press Democrat reporter who visited the scene.

Nearly 8,500 PG&E customers in Sebastopol lost power early Sunday in an outage that lasted throughout the day. Another outage in Petaluma affected just over 4,100 customers, while in Forestville power was zapped to more than 4,000 customers and in Guerneville more than 2,730 customers also lost power.

Some power outages lasted into the evening.

At Country Wine & Liquor on Highway 116 in Sebastopol on Sunday, Surinder Singh made only cash sales and wore a flashlight strapped to his chest.

The store lost power around 8 a.m. during a period of the storm that was “very bad and windy,” he said, adding that as of 4 p.m. the power had yet to be restored.

Singh estimated he’d lost about 75% of his business for the day.

Press Democrat reporters Mya Constantino and Matt Pera contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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