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Guerneville residents and business owners inspect flood damage to their properties

GUERNEVILLE - The sidewalks in front of the historic River Theater on Thursday were covered with thick mud washed up from the bloated Russian River.

Inside, props, chairs, balloons and other debris floated in a deep pool of river water in front of the performance stage. The sound equipment and walls in the theater showed signs of water damage - a clear fingerprint of the worst flood to hit Sonoma County in almost 25 years.

“It’s the only theater I know with an all-year swimming pool,” said owner Jerry Knight, as he stepped carefully on the muddy floor in front of the bar. “Three times this place has flooded but this is probably the worst.”

Knight, 72, who said he had no flood insurance, was among numerous business owners and residents surveying flood damage in lower Guerneville on Thursday, as the sun’s rays broke through patchy clouds for the first time in days. The river was steadily dropping from its Wednesday night crest of 45.4 feet.

Much of the town, however, remained flooded and inaccessible. Roadways remained closed, so residents trudged through water on foot or used kayaks, canoes and small boats. Authorities are planning to reopen Guerneville area roads Friday at noon for residents and business owners.

Annie Boutelle, 45, manager of Johnson’s Beach, borrowed a friend’s kayak to get to her cabin on River Road, just east of Old River Drive. She found the place filled with up to 5 feet of water.

Boutelle, who’s lived in Guerneville for 16 years, said she was able to move many of her valuables into a sleeping loft before she had to evacuate Wednesday at 2 a.m. She used a small U-Haul truck for the rest of her belongings.

“I wasn’t able to get to my rugs, three small bookcases and a dresser,” she said. “I didn’t get to anything in the kitchen.”

On higher ground Thursday afternoon, Bonnie Smith, 70, was sweeping the sidewalk of flood debris in front of the Russian River Art Gallery, where the rising water stopped just short of the entryway. Smith’s dog, Snickers, stood nearby watching passersby and emergency vehicles patrolling the area.

Smith, who lives on a hill on the northeast side of town, said she was grateful the gallery had been spared. Paintings, prints, handmade jewelry - everything inside remained dry.

Next door, Jilla Gauthier, owner of River Queen Clothing, entered her shop for the first time since Tuesday evening. Realizing the water was coming, she had placed everything of value in the store on metal racks.

As she walked across the shop, Gauthier noticed water had entered the store from the back of the property.

“The floors are all warped,” she said. “Oh God, it could have been so much more worse. It looks like I got 3 or 4 inches of water.”

Gauthier said her landlord has flood insurance so the floors likely will be replaced. But her shop’s inventory, which was spared, was not insured.

Wendy Parrott, 60, rode her mountain bike from her home on Rio Nido Road, off Armstrong Woods Road, which was one of the first roads into Guerneville to flood on Tuesday. Parrott, a retired paramedic who works at a blood lab at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa, said she made it through water that reached half way up her 27-inch wheels.

Parrott said floodwater had confined her and her wife, Sue, to their home since Tuesday night.

“I grew up in Alaska, so we’re always prepared,” Parrott said, adding she had a generator, plenty of food and five 2½-gallon containers filled with water.

“We’re OK. The big deal for me is I can’t get to work,” said Parrott, who also is a warehouse truck driver.

The buzz around Guerneville Thursday afternoon was about when the roads would be reopened to allow people to drive in and out of town. As flooding conditions permit, authorities hoped to reopen roads to local traffic at noon Friday and then Saturday allow everyone else access to Guerneville.

At the Safeway in town, area district manager Bob Boyette coordinated a team preparing the store for possible reopening sometime Friday. They restocked merchandise that had been moved from the lowest shelves.

“Other than that, we’re in pretty good shape,” Boyette said.

He said the water had reached within 2 inches of the supermarket’s entryway. The rising river and nearby Fife Creek flooded much of the parking lot.

“We’re just getting ready to take care of the community,” Boyette said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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