Flood fears rise as drenching rains and storms on tap threaten Sonoma County and North Coast

A powerful storm that battered Northern California on Wednesday is the first in a series likely to pummel the region and cause repeated flooding on the Russian River.|

Drenching rain and powerful winds lashed the North Coast as the leading edge of a potent storm barreled into the region and across much of Northern and Central California on Wednesday, submerging roads, felling trees and cutting power to thousands of people in the area before the day was out.

The much-dreaded storm — a moisture-laden atmospheric river powered by steeply dropping pressure known as a “bomb cyclone” — impacted travel and activity across Sonoma County and beyond, as drought-weakened trees fell across roads, particularly along Highway 1, and runoff pooled on ground saturated from earlier rains.

Late Wednesday, county officials issued an evacuation warning for low-lying areas along the Russian River stretching from west of Healdsburg to Jenner on the coast.

Several schools in west Sonoma County were to be closed Thursday due to road closures and power failures, including West Sonoma County Union High School District, Fort Ross Elementary, Guerneville School, Montgomery Elementary, Pathways Charter and Horicon School in Annapolis.

Road hazards proliferated as the skies darkened Wednesday and the deluge intensified, sending public safety personnel armed with safety cones and chain saws out into the streets.

PG&E late Wednesday reported nearly 20,000 customers without power in the North Bay.

But the most severe damage may still lie ahead, in the path of the rising Russian River, which was forecast to flood into next week, reaching nearly eight feet above flood stage in Guerneville by Monday morning. At almost 40 feet, the overflow would be enough to cause major damage to local resorts and other businesses only recently recovered from flood losses incurred in February 2019, when the river crested at 45.4 feet.

The county’s warning late Wednesday affected several thousand people along the lower river, including the towns of Rio Nido, Guerneville and Monte Rio. Authorities urged them to be prepared to evacuate or leave immediately.

Projected rise of the Russian River in Guerneville as of 2:14 p.m. Jan. 4, 2023. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Projected rise of the Russian River in Guerneville as of 2:14 p.m. Jan. 4, 2023. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Though not a formal evacuation order, which would come from the Sheriff’s Office, the notice informs those nearest the river’s edge that they might need to seek higher ground with little notice.

“It’s not just this (storm) event, said Sonoma County Communications Manager Paul Gullixson. “It’s the storms that are stacked up behind this one that will pack a wallop. We’re looking at four storms right now.”

The county has set up an address lookup tool for people to use to see if they are in the threat zone. They are urged to pack a go-bag with medications, important paperwork and other necessary items and to monitor local media and official alerts.

An evacuation center has been set up in the Kraft Building at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, with check-in at 921 Brookwood Ave. in Santa Rosa.

County personnel worked throughout the day with nonprofit partners including West County Community and others to assist unhoused people and others in harm’s way in places like Guerneville and Sebastopol who need help moving RVs and trailers to higher ground.

“Maybe they’re in a formal trailer park,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said at midday Wednesday, several hours before torrential rains began. “Maybe they’re on a friend’s property. Maybe they’re on the side of the road. Now is our primary window. It’s today.”

The latest storm is the third in a series of atmospheric rivers to arrive in eight day’s time, jolting a drought-parched region and thrusting residents into sudden worry over flooding and mudslides — a reflection of what public officials say are increasing extremes in weather resulting from global warming.

At least four more rain systems expected to dump additional rain on the region, with forecasts calling for 10 to 15 inches across most of Sonoma County over the next week.

Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a statewide disaster on Wednesday to facilitate delivery of resources and equipment to storm-impacted areas, while locally fire departments and public agencies have staffed up and coordinated on planning to meet the storm.

While highlighting the strength of Wednesday’s storm, which was predicted to dump up to 10 inches of rain at the highest elevations by late Thursday or early Friday, many local officials emphasized that the longer succession of rain systems concerns them more.

One flood-protection bonus after more than three years of drought: Storage in most California reservoirs has been pitifully low, including Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino.

That means there is capacity to absorb much of the runoff now pouring in, state and federal officials said.

Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said the state was working with federal partners to monitor the state’s system of reservoir and flood control system.

Nick Malasavage, chief of operations and readiness for the U.S. Army Corps’ Golden Gate Division, which oversees flood control operations at Lakes Sonoma and Mendocino, similarly said earlier this week that he hoped to hang onto all the water filling the reservoirs, even with the much smaller Lake Mendocino filling quickly.

“It will likely all stay in the lake,” he said.

The volume of raining coming down Wednesday and expected to stay around the area for most of the next week or 10 days suggests a fair amount of uncertainty, however.

“Of course, we’re concerned,” said Naveed Haneef, owner of the West Sonoma Inn on Fife Creek in Guerneville.

“We’re just going to hope it doesn’te go too far, but when it comes, there’s nothing we can do,” he said.

Jeff Bridges, manager of the R3 resort in central Guerneville, had emptied several upper rooms to make space in case flooding forces his crews to move other furniture upstairs from ground level rooms.

But he was feeling fairly good about his prospects earlier Wednesday, when the Russian River was only forecast to reach just above 35 feet at its peak.

Hours later, the projection rose to nearly 40 feet, meaning Fife Creek will back up as it winds through town, flooding into several downtown areas.

“The numbers I look at are at 37 feet, it starts coming in the back door on Fifth Street,” Bridges said. “By 39 feet it starts coming into the front gate.

“My hard numbers are 37 and 39. Thirty-seven means, ‘ack, it’s coming in.’ Thirty-nine means ‘ack, we’re screwed.’”

Brayden Murdock, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey, said Wednesday’s intensifying rainstorm would diminish through Thursday, with lingering showers and potential thunderstorms into early Friday.

While Friday is forecast to be mostly dry, a new system is expected to begin building Friday night and into Saturday.

Bridges, meanwhile, said he stepped outside the resort in the rain on Wednesday and could smell the nearby redwood trees, happy in the rain.

“I still love living here,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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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