Heavy blow from February 2019 flood lingers along lower Russian River

The one-year anniversary reveals a continued struggle in Rio Nido, Guerneville and Monte Rio as residents and businesses wrestle with an uneven recovery from the historic February 2019 flood.|

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.'

“It was just, like, wow!” he said. “People were coming up and visiting and acting as if nothing ever happened, which was great.”

But an unknown number of residents in damaged homes had to leave the area, while others stayed, improvising for weeks and months between permanent residences, often on indefinite hiatus from their jobs because of the flood.

Rio Nido Roadhouse bartender Kate Robenolt, 39, was one of those searching for work and living quarters. She lost two jobs when the river overflowed as well as the apartment she rented in her brother's Guerneville home. They rebuilt it together, though it took three months. She was without a job until the roadhouse reopened in May.

“After something like this, it takes a lot for people to come back,” she said.

Hit with a new reality

For Jeniffer Wertz, 49, the situation has been more complicated. For more than eight years, she has rented the top-floor apartment in a building above the river in Guerneville that once housed a salon and seven residential units.

When the flood was imminent, Wertz, an Uber driver and busy community organizer, chose to stay.

“Everyone else left,” she said. “They've never been back.”

The first-floor units were badly damaged, and the other renters left Guerneville - a few, the county entirely. Wertz said her landlord wrestled for four months with the prospect of restoring the building and finally decided to sell.

Wertz learned from the new owner last week that it's being converted to vacation rentals, and she needs to move.

“I've seen it happen to so many other people,” she said. “Now it's just my turn, I guess.”

It's not clear how difficult it might be for her to find another home in town. The economy is in flux, and there are lots of moving parts - vacation rentals lost to the flood, workers who left the area trying to get back as resorts resume business, said Debra Johnson, a local real estate agent, former chamber president and president of the West County Community Services board.

“When you drive down Main Street at night, our businesses are full, and we've got more businesses coming in,” she said.

But at the same time, “we haven't had anything this big for a long time,” she said of the flood.

A post on the Facebook page for the Dawn Ranch Resort says, “It's not the ‘shut' that defines us, but the promise of things to come...”

The spacious resort, located on the banks of Fife Creek, has all 53 cabins and cottages out of commission.

Owner Michael Clark said he is just settling his year-old insurance claim and making final redesign decisions for the 1905 establishment.

His eatery, the Agricultural Restaurant & Bar, is closed, as well.

“Everyone kind of thought when the flood took place that we'd all be open for the season like we were in 2005,” Clark said. “This was a lot higher water than it was (then), however.”

It also took only 34 or 40 days to settle his claim last time, he said. This time, “I had the insurance adjuster here the day the water went down, but then it's taken a year to collect. I've kind of just heard through people in town that everybody's had the same problem.”

At The Woods, a collection of 19 cabins and cottages off Fourth Street, Preaseau has had most of the place open since last year, but he is still wrapping up restoration work on the last six units.

His neighbor at West Sonoma Inn, Naveed Haneef, has just nine units open that didn't flood and has crews at work on 22 others that were underwater a year ago, with hopes to have them open for the summer.

The neighboring resorts are on either side of Fife Creek, which backs up when the Russian River rises and turns the north side of Guerneville into a lake.

Also caught in the flooding was the nearby R3 Resort, a popular inn and hangout whose rooms were ready for visitors by Labor Day but whose main bar remains closed because of a dispute with county planning officials related to post-flood rehabilitation.

Co-owner and general manager Jeff Bridges said having the bar closed cuts into revenues by at least half and reduces his ability to host festivities often central to communitywide weekend events.

‘Ripple effect to everything'

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins recently intervened to try to mediate a solution.

“This is an example of an absolutely critical business,” Hopkins said. “R3 is just the heartbeat of the community.”

Bridges, a board member of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce, said, “Triple R is a powerhouse in town. There are also the people we employ, and the people we bring in, and the funds we raise for charity. All of that kind of comes to a stop, which is a shame. There's a ripple effect to everything.”

So when exceptional weather drew visitors to the river en masse over the recent holiday weekends, filling available rooms and restaurant seats and making it seem as if everything was back to normal, it allowed people to breathe a little.

“It was crazy,” said Michael Volpatt, co-owner of Big Bottom Market store and restaurant.

“We shouldn't be as busy as we are (this early in the year), but because of the weather, we're killing it,” Volpatt said. “We've been dealing with economic disaster for quite some time, but we needed a break.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan 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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