Russian River crests, North Coast scrambles to clean up

The Russian River surged to its highest level in a decade Wednesday and deepened flooding woes, while across the North Coast, crews in cities as well as rural areas scrambled to re-open roads, clear toppled trees, restore power and bring normalcy back to a region battered by four days of punishing winter storms.

The scene was a strange one in west Sonoma County, where the Russian River swelled alarmingly larger and more fiercely on an otherwise pleasant day marked by intermittent sunshine, bringing scores of people outside to witness the spectacle and shake off their storm daze.

“There's a lot of lookie-loos,” said Priscilla Rivera, 43, as she walked from her home on Armstrong Woods Road across the river to view the flooded Peewee Golf & Arcade on Drake Road. “Of course, everybody's got cabin fever.”

Fueled by days of torrential rainfall, including Tuesday's bigger-than-expected deluge, the river crested Wednesday afternoon just shy of 38 feet - its highest mark since 2006, when its rise to 42 feet during New Year's storms sparked the most damaging floods in recent memory.

Residents felt relief Wednesday that there wasn't a repeat of that devastation.

“A lot of people are glad it wasn't worse,” said incoming Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who toured the Russian River area Wednesday. “Still, there are people who were surprised that it got as bad as it did.”

The river first reached flood stage of 32 feet late Sunday before cresting Monday at 35 feet. Wednesday's higher peak likely did not expand the flood zone so much as deepen already existing pools of water, said Christopher Helgren, Sonoma County's emergency manager.

“In the big scheme of things, it's not substantial, but it is significant,” he said. “Instead of having an inch of water, you have 2.5 feet of water.”

River communities will have to wait a little while longer to assess flood damage. Latest forecasts called for the river to remain above flood stage until 2 p.m. today.

Upwards of 650 households are affected by flooding when the Russian River reaches 38 feet, according to government models.

But officials stressed those numbers include flooding anywhere on property, impacts on utilities such as wells and septic systems, and places that are inaccessible, including because of road closures. The data also does not reflect homes that have been raised.

Helgren said he'd be “surprised” if more than a “few hundred” homes were affected by this week's floods.

Hopkins agreed with that assessment, and added that flood damages mostly are going to fall in the category of replacing carpets and throwing soaked items in the trash. She also expressed concern about the amount of hazardous material that will find its way into the river once floodwaters recede.

The county will be arranging drop-off sites in river communities for debris and hazardous materials in coming days, spokeswoman Rebecca Wachsberg said.

Advisory evacuation notices for 1,900 households remained in effect Wednesday. But many residents living in flooded areas have elected to ride the storms out.

“This is like a baby flood,” said Bruce MacDonell, whose home at the end of Neeley Road in Guerneville was high and dry, having been lifted long ago like most neighboring homes.

MacDonell spent several hours Wednesday ferrying people back and forth in his flat-bottom boat across a large expanse of river water that had inundated Neeley Road.

“For us old-timers, this is nothing,” he said. “This is part of the price of living in paradise.”

Seven people escaping river flooding sought shelter at the Santa Rosa Veterans Building this week.

Six horses and a miniature pony also were temporarily housed at the county fairgrounds.

All schools in Sonoma County will be open today, with the exception of the Guerneville School District, where classrooms will again remain dark.

Most of Guerneville's commercial district was operating as usual Wednesday, though a few restaurants and shops closed for the day because of the weather and at least two, Westamerica Bank and Safeway, had limited power.

The brownout meant the darkened grocery was prevented from selling meat, milk and other refrigerated or frozen goods, though customers mostly faced their frustration with patience, including Wayne Smith, 59, who had bicycled into town from his home near Rio Nido on River Road because back roads were flooded.

Smith was glad to get pet food, at least.

“It's very difficult, but I didn't get flooded,” he said.

Across Sonoma County late Wednesday, 1,600 households were still without power. That included 544 homes in Sebastopol, 250 in Cazadero and 188 in Santa Rosa, according to PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras.

She said power was restored Wednesday to 31 households in Jenner who have been in the dark since Saturday, making it one of the longest outages in the county.

Dozens of roads remained closed Wednesday because of flooding, mudslides and erosion. That included Highway 37, a crucial link in the North Bay's roadway system that remained closed Wednesday in both directions, with no estimated time of reopening.

High waters from the storms forced the highway's closure about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and the highway has remained closed between Highway 101 and Atherton Avenue since, CHP Officer Andrew Barclay said.

In Sonoma County, more than 30 roads remained closed Wednesday, including rural Highway 128 near Chalk Hill Road east of Healdsburg, which was shut down because of a mudslide. Officials had estimated it could take a few days to clear the slide.

More road problems cropped up later Wednesday, including reports of a new mudslide on Petrified Forest Road, which had closed Tuesday night for several hours as a result of a similar slide.

Also Wednesday evening, flood water from the overflowing Laguna de Santa Rosa covered Highway 12 east of Sebastopol and also was encroaching on nearby Occidental Road, reducing traffic there to one lane. Highway 116 was impassable Wednesday night at Mays Canyon Road, but the road was kept open as flooding would ease overnight, CHP Officer Kimberly Lemons said.

The need to drive cautiously hasn't gone away despite storms dissipating, she added.

“People are going to fall into a false sense of security now that the rain has stopped,” she said.

Wednesday's weather forecast called for more rain overnight, followed by clearing skies Thursday and a dry weekend.

Despite rumors floating Wednesday along the Russian River that flood releases from upstream reservoirs already had begun, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would begin discharging additional water from Lake Mendocino at 10 a.m. Thursday at the very earliest, ramping up gradually by 500 cubic feet per second to about 2,000 or 2,500 cfs, to be sustained for several days.

Releases from Lake Sonoma could begin Friday, reaching as much as 3,000 cubic feet per second, but only once the river has dropped below flood stage, San Francisco District Operations Chief Mike Dillabough said.

Forecasters have raised the possibility of additional storm activity next week, “so we want to evacuate as much water as we can between now and then that we can do safely,” Dillabough said.

“If it's not safe, we don't do it,” he said. “We just hold a little bit longer.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336. or derek.moore@pressdemocrat, Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or, and Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or

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