Sonoma County declares health emergency due to hazardous waste left after the flood

Floodwaters tossed contents of thousands of garages, vehicles, businesses and homes in the towns along the Russian River, leaving behind a nasty mix of sewage, gasoline and chemicals.|


For debris disposal and hazardous waste information, go to

For information about properly cleaning after a flood, go to

GUERNEVILLE - Parting her patient’s blonde hair in an exam room Tuesday, Dr. DeEtte DeVille took a closer look at a bruise incurred when Colette Bias tripped and fell into waist-deep water during last week’s flood, hitting her head on a tree branch.

“I don’t see any broken skin, did you notice blood?” asked DeVille, medical director of Russian River Health Center in Guerneville.

“No, just a really bad headache,” said Bias, 50, of Monte Rio, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.

DeVille ordered medications for Bias to pick up at the pharmacy - she’d lost a bag with some belongings when she fell - including an ointment for a rash she’d developed on her face and legs.

When the Russian River flooded its banks last week, its fast-moving murky waters created a potential health hazard for people trying to get out of the area or, like Bias, seek supplies such as fuel and food. The floodwaters receded Friday after thoroughly tossing the contents of thousands of garages, RVs, vehicles, businesses and homes in the towns along the river, and leaving behind a mixture of sewage, gasoline, chemicals and mud.

Most just call it the “flood crud.”

Sonoma County’s interim health officer, Dr. Karen Holbrook, declared a local health emergency Tuesday because of the volume of hazardous waste scattered by the worst flood since 1995, which affected 2,572 homes and businesses plus public infrastructure from Sebastopol to Monte Rio and caused an estimated $155 million in damage. The county has posted no-entry warnings on 35 homes and cautionary notices on 600 homes.

Nail polish, paint, drain openers, lighter fluid, rat poison, batteries, adhesives, even thermometers - all of these items contain potentially hazardous ingredients that could cause health problems if ingested and shouldn’t be thrown away in the household trash.

County crews will not pick up flood debris such as furniture and appliances from the curb, despite massive waterlogged piles accruing along west county roads.

But the health emergency declaration enables the county to start collecting hazardous waste from people’s curbs, Holbrook said. She urged people to keep these piles separate from other types of rubbish and leave them out front on their properties without blocking roads or road shoulders.

“We want to get those out of the homes and out of the yards and out of the environment,” Holbrook said.

So far, most patients seeking care at the clinic in Guerneville are seeking help refilling prescriptions lost during the chaos of the flood, DeVille said. Many others are coming in to get the vaccine for tetanus, an uncomfortable and easily preventable infection causing lockjaw.

Now that people are deep in cleanup, bacterial infections and intestinal bugs could be next.

“This is about the time we start seeing that,” she said.

The county has published a set of recommendations for how people cleaning their properties should sanitize surfaces, such as boiling items in clean water or immersing them for 15 minutes in a bleach-water solution (1 tablespoon of household bleach per gallon of water).

Most importantly: Wash your hands.

Scrub hands in soapy water for the time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. Warm soapy water is better than hand sanitizer, but “hand sanitizer is better than nothing,” Holbrook said.

“It’s the physical motion of washing your hands (that cleans them) more than anything,” she said.

Mold is also a major concern, and people can prevent its spread in their homes and businesses by quickly removing debris, cleaning surfaces and airing out structures, said Christine Sosko, Sonoma County’s environmental health director.

Health inspectors are working through a list of about 170 food facilities including restaurants, markets, cafés and cafeterias affected in small or large ways by the flood. Some businesses, like the Safeway grocery store in Guerneville reopened quickly while others, such as those in Sebastopol’s Barlow shopping center, are closed indefinitely because of the extent of damage.

“We’ve reopened many of them, and some of them never had to close,” Sosko said.

Residents worried about the prevalence of sewage left behind by the floodwaters questioned county officials about their concerns at a community meeting held Sunday at El Molino High School in Forestville. Sonoma County emergency services director Chris Godley said inspectors had not found significant damage to septic systems.

“That’s not something we saw on a widespread basis during our inspections,” he said.

At the park and ride lot on Main Street in Guerneville Monday morning, Mike Fell tossed sodden refuse he’d hauled there from the garage of his house on Old Cazadero Road into a dumpster. Some of the items were from his property, some had come to rest in his yard: tires, lumber garbage cans, a stranger’s bed sheets. And he wasn’t done.

“But this is my last trip today,” Fell said. “I think I’m getting sick from this mud.”

Asked to describe his symptoms, he replied candidly: “Diarrhea.”

“You’re shoveling it up, it splashes up in your face,” Fell said. “It’s kind of unavoidable.”

Staff Writer Austin Murphy contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.


For debris disposal and hazardous waste information, go to

For information about properly cleaning after a flood, go to

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