Photos: A look back at the 1983 floods

From Clear Lake to the Russian River, the 1983 floods soaked Northern California.|

Recent heavy rains, flooding and road closures have followed Sonoma County into the new year, prompting the National Weather Service to issue flood watches across the Bay Area and leaving longtime residents wary of a large flood’s damaging effects.

The sight was similar 40 years ago, when a large rainstorm greeted the county in January 1983.

A storm that landed in the region on Jan. 26 was reported to be “less intense than predicted.” The Russian River reached the 32-foot flood stage that night, and by 9 a.m. the next morning it had reached 40 feet.

The furious rainstorm caused flooding and subsequent road closures, power outages and mudslides. After a devastating flood the previous year, people were more prepared and watchful. Residents from Guerneville to Petaluma voluntarily evacuated their homes before water levels rose too high to leave. Shelters were set up at Elks Lodge in Petaluma, Cassini’s Bar in Bodega, El Molino High School in Forestville and the Veterans Memorial Building in Guerneville.

According to a Jan. 27, 1983, Press Democrat article, Bodega Fire Chief Anne Murphy Springer blasted a flood siren when Salmon Creek hit the flood stage. Firetrucks with medical supplies were strategically placed throughout the area to assist flood victims. Store owners and residents shored up their property with sandbags and moved valuables to higher locations.

Despite citizens’ preparedness, there were still snafus, as some of the county’s flood prevention measures had yet to take effect.

Petaluma City Council authorized an expenditure of up to $40,000 for an automated flood alert system, which wouldn’t be implemented until the following winter, according to a Jan. 4, 1983, Petaluma Argus-Courier article.

Other measures that city councils enacted — such as putting $70,000 toward Sonoma County Water Agency’s master drainage plan and receiving grants to move at-risk homes from floodways — wouldn’t go into effect until later that year or longer.

“Let’s not kid ourselves. It hasn’t been successful,” said Petaluma Mayor Fred Mattei about flood-control efforts during a city council meeting, said in a March 15, 1983, Press Democrat article.

At the height of the storm, just a few days after it began, about 800 people had to evacuate their homes. Storms forced the closures of 19 roads, caused more than $2 million in damage, and battered 180 homes and 40 businesses.

PG&E reported some 6,000 customers in Sonoma County were without power at the peak of the storm, as winds knocked down utility lines. A Pacific Telephone Co. spokesperson said 390 customers were out of service, about five times the normal amount after a storm.

Despite residents’ agitation with the county’s seemingly slow-moving progress in flood preparedness, many braved the stormy floods with wit and humor. People traveled down roads via boat, Costeaux French Bakery used loaves of frozen bread to shore up its entrance and drinks were still being served at the Bullshot Saloon as water covered the floor.

See the gallery above for photos of the 1983 floods.

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