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Storm slams North Bay, Russian River set to flood Friday

Swollen rivers and brisk showers may remain Friday, but by the weekend the North Bay should start drying out after two formidable storms passed through the region this week.

Thursday's storm left emergency officials dealing with new mudslides and road closures, while an afternoon power outage that might be weather-related closed most of the main campus of Santa Rosa Junior College.

Friday morning the Russian River is expected to crest in Guerneville at 36.7 feet, more than 4 feet above flood level. The river, which first began to flood low-lying areas on Tuesday, is predicted to drop back below the 32-foot flood level by midnight.

Friday's overcast skies are expected to give way Saturday to sunshine. The skies are expected to remain mostly sunny through at least Tuesday.

However, rain this winter never seems far away, and another drenching already appears on the way. The predictions are admittedly tentative, but two standard forecasting models both suggest “that next weekend will be quite wet,” said Bob Benjamin, a forecaster in Monterey with the National Weather Service.

Compared with some of the weather around the rest of the state, though, Thursday's storm in Sonoma County was mild.

Torrents washed away more of the rain-weakened spillway of the state's second-largest reservoir at Oroville Dam. In hard-hit coastal mountains near Santa Cruz, a dump truck accidentally ran over two highway workers -killing one - as the men worked to clear one of several slides of mud and rock pouring on to Highway 17, the California Highway Patrol said.

In Central California, a car plunged into a flooded creek near Bakersfield. Kern County authorities rescued a woman clinging to tree branches in the swollen creek but a man in his 20s died when the car submerged upside down.

By 4 p.m. Thursday, Santa Rosa had received 1.71 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. In the last four days, more than 6 inches of rain fell on the city.

The back-to-back storms this week closed about two dozen roads in the rural portions of the county. On Thursday flooding closed Rohnert Park Expressway at Stony Point Road, Slusser Road at River Road and Valley Ford Road at Bloomfield Road.

A section of Highway 37 near Novato was limited to one eastbound lane early Thursday, but by the afternoon even that had to be closed to traffic. The road already has been partially or fully closed for more than a dozen days this year. The Marin CHP reported on its Facebook page Thursday night the current high water is “by far, the worst flooding we have seen since this all started.”

Mud slides closed Geysers Road in Cloverdale and on Thursday night at least one lane of River Road near Korbel Winery.

On Green Valley Road outside Graton, flooding prompted a county road crew to put up a concrete railing to block the route from drivers willing to risk the moving water. About 300 feet of the roadway was under water near Sullivan Road, a notorious spot where Atascadero and Green Valley creeks meet.

“With this much rain and saturation, we're unsure of the conditions of the road,” said Jennifer Larocque, a spokeswoman for the Sonoma County Department of Transportation and Public Works. “That's one of the reasons we ask that people not drive through floodwater.”

The constant rains have created unstable conditions beneath many of the county's roadways, she said, and the county was working with emergency contractors “to keep our roads passable whenever possible.”

At the junior college's main campus in Santa Rosa, most classes were canceled Thursday afternoon after a power outage struck central Santa Rosa. The outage affected buildings from Santa Rosa City Hall to the Sonoma County government complex and Hall of Justice, said Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spokeswoman Deanna Contreras.

More than 1,100 customers lost power shortly after 2 p.m. when an underground cable failed at 450 Sonoma Ave., she said. Power was restored to all customers about 4:30 p.m. and the utility is investigating whether the outage was caused by Thursday's storm.

Students, staff and faculty were advised to check the college's main web page and its social media sites this morning for an update on the status of classes, said college spokeswoman Ellen Maremont Silver.

Guerneville School District canceled classes today.

Operators of the region's two reservoirs, Lakes Sonoma and Mendocino, are making minimal releases and storing water in an effort to minimize flooding downstream on the Russian River.

Russian River at Guerneville

Mike Dillabough, district chief of operations with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the dam operators will consider increasing releases in the coming days of dry weather in order to free up more storage capacity, but only “when it's safe to do so” for downstream residents.

Dillabough noted the two reservoirs control runoff from just 18 percent of the river's watershed.

“The other 82 percent is wild,” he said.

Some county residents seemed to be taking the week's deluges in stride.

Herman Hernandes, a Guerneville real estate broker, noted that Friday's high water was “going to be a twin to the January flood.” But after living through the 1986 and 1995 floods, each reaching a height of slightly more than 48 feet, he said he doesn't pay too much attention to floods that don't exceed 39 feet.

“Usually what gets my attention is when somebody says ‘40,'” he said.

In the hills of Venado, the Sonoma County outpost about 10 miles west of Healdsburg, Bob and Carolyn Alpern's rain gauge has measured 114 inches for the season. But the rain didn't stop Bob Alpern, 88, from taking his dog Honey Bear for a walk Thursday afternoon, right in the midst of a downpour.

Venado is notorious for its extreme rainfall, and Bob Alpern acknowledged that Thursday the nearby streams were “rushing and gushing and filling the side of the road and even coming over the road.” But he said it remained a gorgeous place to live.

“There's no traffic, no pollution and we're amid the redwoods,” he said.

This story contains material from the Associated Press.

Staff Writers Randi Rossmann and Christi Warren contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish. You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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