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Flood anniversary caps Barlow's year of turmoil

February brought nothing but sunshine - no threat of rain for weeks on end - but after the trauma of last year’s flood, restaurateur Carlos Rosas experienced a foreboding he couldn’t shake.

Each day for about two weeks, he confronted the creep toward Feb. 27, the first anniversary of calamity at The Barlow, a retail district that was both predictably and stunningly overwhelmed by floodwaters from the Laguna de Santa Rosa last year.

While the Sebastopol complex is in the flood plain and its inundation was foreseeable, the structures were outfitted with a protective barrier system that should have kept water from entering the buildings.

So it was a massive shock to Rosas, owner of Barrio: Cocina Fresca Mexicana, to his Barlow neighbors and to the larger community when a three-day storm that sent the Russian River over its banks also turned the $32 million shopping and dining district into a disaster zone. Twenty-four businesses sustained damage - substantial, in most cases - including Rosas’ restaurant.

When he awoke Thursday to clear skies, he said he prayed in gratitude - “Oh, my God! Thank God it’s not raining!” - even though warm, sunny weather had been forecast.

“I know we need rain,” said Rosas, residual anxiety about last year’s deluge evident in his voice. “But it was really, really bad.”

February’s near-summer conditions drew swarms of visitors to the grassy lawns, lively taprooms and eateries at the marketplace, where tenants say newly opened Red Bird Bakery and Acre Pizza have contributed new energy.

Opened just within the past few weeks, the two companies now share a large space vacated by the venerable Village Bakery, which announced in June it was leaving The Barlow.

Also new since the flood are Seismic Brewing Co. and Golden State Cider, both of which were in the works when the rain came last year; Rust Boutique, which features women’s fashion and gifts; and Barge North Company, with “slow fashion” and home goods.

The Region, a Sonoma County wine co-op, is expected to debut in late spring, Barlow spokeswoman Annie Taylor said.

A farmhouse-style wood grill restaurant and cocktail bar called Blue Ridge Kitchen has been announced for the former Zazu Kitchen & Farm space, said Taylor, director of marketing and partnerships.

The mood around the complex “seems to be exceptional,” said Jake Rand, chef and owner of Sushi Kosho, one of the last places to reopen post-flood, due to a full-scale remodel.

“It seems that people are really feeling optimistic,” Rand said.

But it’s been a very difficult time for most of The Barlow’s business owners. Inventory and equipment losses for the flood victims were substantial, and then there were the weeks, sometimes months, without income, while interior repairs were made.

Visitation was down for an extended for period, as restoration was underway and even afterward, amid piecemeal reopenings, and some business owners were just beginning to feel like life was returning to normal when an exceptionally dry, hot October brought more pain due to PG&E power shut-offs and the Kincade fire.

“We all have a little bit of PTSD when it comes to rainy weather,” said Mel Minton, general manager at the Community Market in the Barlow. “Kind of the same with wind and fire, right now.”

Gia Baiocchi, owner of The Nectary juice and smoothie bar and a partner in Fern Bar restaurant and lounge, which did not flood, likened the extended recovery to friends still getting back on their feet after more than two years after the North Bay firestorm of 2017.

“Looking back, obviously it was an absolutely devastating experience for so many of us, even those of us that did manage to reopen,” she said. “I’m still, on a daily basis, dealing with something flood-related. I’ve been in a state of crisis management for a year, really, even though I reopened in May.”

The Barlow’s misfortune was perhaps the least anticipated aspect of widespread flooding that occurred last year after an atmospheric river stalled above the region and dumped 10 to 15 inches of rain over the Russian River watershed - even more, in some places.

The downpour raised the Russian River to 45.4 feet, its highest level in nearly a quarter century, and pushed creeks and waterways around the region to overflowing, turning the landscape into a coffee-colored water world.

The result was an estimated $150 million in private property losses and about $77.9 million in damage to public infrastructure, emergency response costs and debris removal, according to Sonoma County personnel.

At the 6-year-old Barlow, about two-thirds of the restaurants, shops and other businesses that make up the 12-acre complex were flooded.

Nearly all were uninsured, given the prohibitive cost of insurance in a flood plain, and faced devastating losses.

Several tenants pulled up stakes as a result, including two key anchors, Zazu and Village Bakery. Other departures immediately after the flood included Tamarind boutique, Friedeman Wines, Barlow Clay pottery studio, and Circle of Hands toys and gifts.

Leather handbag and jewelry designer Adelle Stoll left in the fall. MacPhail Tasting Lounge, also flooded, closed in December.

Amid the grief and ruin, personal and legal disputes also arose over Barlow management’s planning, maintenance and execution of the flood protection plan the city of Sebastopol required it to develop as a condition of its permit to build in the flood plain 1,000 feet from the Laguna.

A review by the city concluded The Barlow simply waited too long to begin installing prefabricated floodgates and even marshaling the work crew needed to do it, and identified multiple lapses that prevented the system from being deployed properly.

As a consequence, a handful of office workers were out in a driving rain without light - the storm having cut the power - frantically trying to install heavy interlocking barriers, some of them inserted out-of-order or upside down, others still piled under water across the complex.

Business owners like Rosas, assured the complex with its barrier system was flood-proof, began arriving before dawn and desperately joined the fray as the rising water gushed into their units. In the end, not a single entrance was sealed in time.

Barlow developer and owner Barney Aldridge said his team has overhauled the plan since - including adopting an earlier trigger point for deployment preparations to begin, bringing back a former manager who helped develop the flood-protection plan, adopting new rules for higher level storage and other measures.

“I think we’re far better prepared than ever now that we’ve lived through one,” Aldridge said. “It’s a huge learning curve, but I think we’d have a much better outcome.”

Aldridge and the Barlow remain the defendants in a pending lawsuit filed against them by nine flood-damaged businesses, including seven that continue to do business at the marketplace.

They include Community Market, Victorian Farmstead Meat Co., Crooked Goat Brewing, Two Dog Night Creamery, Scout West County, The Nectary and Fern Barn. The plaintiffs that have left The Barlow are Tamarind and Friedeman Wines.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Brad DeMeo recently denied a bid by Aldridge’s legal representation to restrict the breadth of the lawsuit.

Aldridge said he hopes there’s a way to settle “and move on,” rather than continue with litigation.

While sales have not returned to where they were before the flood, most tenants say there’s enthusiasm in the air, thanks in part to a busy February.

“It feels like things are on an upswing,” said artist Jennifer Hirschfield, owner of Gallery 300. “People are happy. It’s looking good.”

Baiocchi, who had to reach out to friends and family to help get the doors back open at The Barlow Nectary, said the anniversary of the flood has been an emotional one.

“Yesterday I had a meeting in the courtyard right out front,” she said a day afterward, “and I thought, ‘Wow, this time last year I was in a canoe in front of my business, and my business was 5 feet under water.’

“There’s something about having time and perspective and being able to look back at something. I definitely had some feelings yesterday ... about what a big year it’s been, how far we’ve come, and how fortunate I really feel to have my business and have it be open.”

Said Rosas, “I believe in this place. It’s about timing. I know it’s going to be successful.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Barge North Company.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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