Heavy blow from February 2019 flood lingers along lower Russian River
A faint line between the glass panes of a half-moon window in a door at the Rio Nido Roadhouse marks the point where the roiling floodwaters finally stopped their upward surge a year ago.
At 6 feet, 4 inches above the ground, the thick, dark water reached above most people's heads and created an expanse of brown liquid that swirled in and around the roadside eatery, ruining the electronics, overloading the plumbing and leaving a slippery layer of mud and grit on every surface after its retreat.
But a post-flood community effort to support owners Brad and Raena Metzger means the smudged line between window panes is about the only remaining sign of what happened when a three-day rainstorm stalled overhead last year and pushed the Russian River to its highest level since 1995.
A complete overhaul was required to repair the damage, one remarkably concluded in time to enjoy what Brad Metzger called “the busiest summer we've ever had.”
“We were really the poster children of recovery, to a certain degree,” he said.
But after the worst flood in nearly a quarter century, many other business owners are still struggling to regain their footing. For them, the recovery is still very much underway.
While unseasonably warm, dry conditions have buoyed the number of winter visitors, boosting sales and confidence in the coming summer season, several resorts are still working to reopen completely.
Others are trying to recoup financial losses from the flood as well as from painful closures in October, during the Kincade fire and extended emergency PG&E power shutdowns.
“It's all a work in progress,' said Michael Preaseau, proprietor of The Woods resort in central Guerneville. “It was a devastating flood, and then working with the insurance and the banks. It's been hard on everybody.”
The balmy, springlike weather in recent weeks stands in sharp contrast to the stormy conditions a year ago, making it hard to picture the now sun-drenched region swamped at that time under many feet of floodwater.
The deluge involved 10 to 15 ?inches of rain over three days across most of the Russian River watershed, with more than 20 ?inches in the wettest locations. The runoff on Feb. 26 raised the Russian River in Guerneville to 45.4 feet, more than 13 feet above flood stage.
Creeks and waterways around the region spilled their banks, closing roadways, cutting off neighborhoods and damaging infrastructure from Petaluma to Healdsburg, Schellville to Sebastopol, where the high-end Barlow marketplace was inundated by the Laguna de Santa Rosa.
The storm and resulting flood left nearly 8,000 customers without power and prompted evacuations of an estimated 3,600 Sonoma County residents.
At least 527 structures were damaged and 31 or more were rendered unsafe to enter, according to county officials.
Private property losses were estimated at $150 million, while damage to public property and infrastructure was estimated at nearly $48 million, plus another $24.4 million in emergency response costs and $5.7 million for debris removal, according to Sonoma County personnel.
Community steps in to help
Nowhere was the flooding worse than in the lower Russian River towns of Guerneville, Monte Rio and Rio Nido, where neighborhoods became islands as waterways crested.
Long-timers are accustomed to the river's occasional rampage, and Monte Rio Chamber of Commerce President Marina McTaggart, a relative newcomer with just eight years in the area, was dazzled by what she saw when evacuees were allowed back into the community.
“As soon as people were able to get out and about and start the cleanup process and check on neighbors, people whose businesses and homes weren't affected were ready to jump in and start helping people who were affected,” she said. “This is an amazing community. We're small, but we're strong, and we definitely care about each other.”
Up to four Monte Rio resorts were underwater when the river reached its crest, and the iconic Rio Theater, now for sale, took in water, as well. But except for the theater and adjoining cafe space, whose former tenant is now operating successfully nearby, everyone is back open and fully operational, McTaggart said.
The story is more mixed in Guerneville, a town of about 4,250 people and the hub of the lower river region.
For many, life returned to normal so long ago, the flood of February 2019 seems a distant memory.
The doors of local eateries and hotels are open. Rentals and homes that needed to be gutted have been cleaned out and restored.
Visitors came in such great numbers over the Valentine's Day and President's Day weekends that it felt, Preaseau said, like “it was back to old times.'