Huge cleanup awaits along Russian River as high toll of flooding emerges
GUERNEVILLE - Russian River floodwaters receded from all but the lowest-lying areas Friday, pulling the river's watery curtain out of homes and away from most surface streets, giving residents and merchants a clearer look at the extensive damage and sprawling cleanup to come.
Norma Pichardo, 38, climbed the mud-slickened spiral staircase leading to her family's second-floor apartment on Sycamore Court. Across the courtyard, the torrent of runoff seemed to have moved through the first floor garage of Fife Creek Commons without causing major damage. Not so among about a half-dozen nearby homes like hers clustered on lower land.
Pichardo unlocked the door and found her home of 10 years upended, belongings tossed about as if by intruders. A shelf lay on its side in the middle of the kitchen. Chairs were toppled, soaked clothes were everywhere. All that stood or sat below waist level was covered in a film of mud.
Pichardo took a garbage bag out of her pocket and began filling it with pictures hanging on the wall: One child's soccer team portrait; another's Guerneville School class picture; smiling faces of her three kids in homemade Christmas frames.
“It's their home,” Pichardo said, full of emotion.
The Russian River dropped below the 32-foot flood level after 11 a.m. Friday, making roads that had become waterways passable again. Authorities lifted roadblocks for residents and business people just after noon, and for the first time in days people who evacuated, as well as those who rode out the storm in their houses, surveyed communities that had not seen this scale of disaster in a quarter century.
The floodwaters caused nearly $23 million in damage to public infrastructure, according to initial estimates. Sonoma County has already spent $2.2 million in its response, including fire and law enforcement costs. Private losses haven't been totaled, but The Barlow, an upscale Sebastopol shopping district near the swollen Laguna de Santa Rosa, alone sustained an estimated $6 million in flood damage.
About 2,600 structures, including homes and businesses, have been impacted, according to the latest county estimate. Many river homes are built on top of garages, sparing living quarters from flood damage. A fuller account of the destruction, assisted by GIS mapping, will take shape over the coming weeks, authorities said.
Already, the questions are pouring in from affected residents, said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district encompasses the hardest hit areas. “There's a lot of concerns about the health impacts of the water, how to reduce the chance of mold,” she said. “People want to know what to do with propane tanks in their yards.”
County officials will hold a public meeting from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at El Molino High School in Forestville to address cleanup concerns.
Nearly 1,500 PG&E customers remained without power Friday, with the greatest number, nearly 1,000, in Cazadero. Crews hoped to restore power to most by midnight. Gas service had been shut off to 265 homes in Forestvile and technicians began restoring it Friday.
Craig Weynick, 66, had been holed up in his Forestville home without electricity for days. Friday afternoon, he walked house-to-house, checking on neighbors and looking for his garbage cans.
“Get that mud out of there and bring in the dehumidifiers,” he called to a neighbor.
Business that could reopen did so Friday, and Guerneville's Main Street was abuzz with activity.
At the counter inside Pat's Restaurant, Mick Stahl commiserated with friends over a noontime beer. The floodwater severely damaged Stahl's house in town and his cabinet business on River Road.
It'll be weeks if not months of cleanup. He's been staying with a Russian River Chamber of Commerce member who opened his home to anyone who needed it.
“These things happen,” said Stahl, 40. “This community - we will all stick together.”
Andy Breffitt, 66, ducked his head into Higher Ground Organic Espresso on Third Street, where by mid morning cafe owner Emilie Navarro had cleared the mud from her tile floor.
“You've been initiated,” said Breffitt, an auto mechanic whose family has roots here dating back 125 years.
“I was making coffee as I was pulling art off the walls,” Navarro, 33, recalled of the storm's first punch Tuesday.
Two doors down, Berlin Fisher, 52, of Monte Rio had hired several workers to rip out the sodden dry wall of his salon, which he planned to temporarily move to the second floor.
Outside, people were power washing driveways and hauling waterlogged furniture from homes and garages.
The economic toll for this community reliant on tourism is sure to be staggering.