Tenants of Sebastopol’s Barlow district pin flooding problems on owner
John Stewart and a team of volunteers Thursday were pumping water out of his restaurant, Zazu Kitchen and Farm, at The Barlow. They already had spent 24 hours trying to contain the floodwaters that overtook the high-end Sebastopol shopping district after floodgates were overwhelmed early Wednesday.
Down the street, Adelle Stoll was mopping out gray water from her store while taking a mental inventory of how much merchandise was destroyed. Water-logged shoes were stacked in front of the shop that bears her name. There were remnants of a shoe line she was just about to launch.
Neighboring tenants gathered at her shop, swapping stories about the damage sustained by their stores, which remained closed. A gallery owner said she lost a $100,000 painting in the flood.
Barney Aldridge, manager and owner of The Barlow, rushed across the property in knee-high rain boots Thursday, coordinating cleanup efforts as the floodwaters slowly receded from storefronts. Located along the Laguna de Santa Rosa, the shopping center was among the dozens of areas that suffered severe flooding after this week's intense rains.
Aldridge said his team was still assessing the damage, as well as how much it would cost to clean up the muck.
A city-approved flood preparedness program crafted by Aldridge and his advisers that took six years to develop was supposed to prevent this type of extensive damage from happening if implemented correctly, Sebastopol City Manager Larry McLaughlin said.
Two weeks leading up to the storm, there were concerns at the city that parts of Sebastopol could flood if heavy rains continued, McLaughlin said, but they had no real concerns about The Barlow, despite it being located in a flood zone.
“The management side at The Barlow assured us they were ready to go and ready to institute a flood plan, and so we had no reason to doubt them otherwise,” McLaughlin said. “All the work we did to ensure that couldn't happen and I am now saddened.”
Aldridge declined to discuss what happened in the hours leading up to the flooding at The Barlow and instead focused on the steps being taken to support the tenants and reopen stores as soon as possible.
“I wasn't there when my team started following the flood plan, but all the flood logs were deployed,” Aldridge said Thursday, referring to the barriers meant to protect tenants' stores when installed. “Getting these businesses to get reopened, that is our main priority.”
A flood advisory was issued for Sonoma County early Tuesday. Protocol states that when a flood advisory is in effect for Sebastopol, The Barlow managers must issue an internal flood warning to tenants urging them to prepare for possible flooding, according to the flood preparedness plan. If waters from the Laguna de Santa Rosa continue to rise, The Barlow must install flood barriers up to 10 feet in front of businesses, addressing those shops under imminent threat first, according to the plan.
When it was first approved by the city, the plan was tested from start to finish, taking 50 employees 12 hours to install all the barriers, said Glenn Schainblatt, the city's flood plan manager.
It's unclear whether all the barriers were installed Wednesday.
The Barlow's facilities manager, Brian Perry, sent the tenants an email at 4:18 p.m. Tuesday. In the email, obtained by The Press Democrat, he encouraged tenants to prepare for a flood and told them flood barriers could be deployed sometime that night.
Tenants said they received no other email until 6:44 a.m. Wednesday, when The Barlow was underwater.
By the time business owners, including Stewart and Stoll, arrived, their shops already were flooded, with only a few barriers put in place, they said. Some stores were so submerged that the barriers could not even be seen, leading tenants to wonder if they were ever installed in the first place, said Andrea Kenner, owner of Tamarind Clothing.
Schainblatt said it was the landlord's responsibility to monitor flood levels and implement the plan. The best the city could do was send updates to business owners warning of potential flooding, which it did, he said.
“On paper the plan should have worked, so I was kind of stunned to hear about what happened,” Schainblatt said.
Pumps were also installed in every business during construction, but Schainblatt said once waters get too high they don't work as quickly. Tenants said they kicked in automatically, but they did not help.
While inspectors from the health department assessed the damage at Community Market Thursday, other Barlow tenants were left alone to determine the best course of action for their businesses.
Lori Austin held a trash bag in one hand and tissues in the other as she tip-toed around her soaked art gallery. She said she never expected a flood.
“There was no real opportunity to take any preventative measures before the flood and now I have sustained thousands of dollars in damage,” Austin said, trying not to cry. “We have all weathered a slow couple of months and we were so looking forward to spring - and now this happened.”
Stoll nine months ago opened her store that featured handcrafted goods, including leather handbags, jewelry and home decor. The floodwaters destroyed most of her electronics and all of her crafting materials. She said she's unsure how long it will take to get back on her feet.
“I funded this store on an absolute shoestring and made it happen,” said Stoll, who works in the store seven days a week and relies on sales for her sole source of income.
“But now I have to lean on the community to show up for us and help support us out of this disaster.”
Tenants, including Kenner and Kendra Kolling, said their questions on why the flood barriers weren't deployed sooner had gone unanswered by management this week.
“We had too much faith in the program The Barlow sold us on and that is where it is my own fault in not getting my stuff out,” said Kenner, who reportedly lost upward of $150,000 in merchandise.
Kolling, who lost her Kenwood home in the 2017 wildfires, said her restaurant, The Farmer's Wife, which she opened in October, had sustained serious damage, and possibly was beyond repair.
“I am just not sure if I can do this anymore, not after all the trauma my family and I have endured,” Kolling said, crying. “We are responsible for everything in the interior of our stores and The Barlow protects the exterior. But they sunk our interior by not having enough labor or responsibility to prepare for the flood.”
You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.