Valentine’s Day Flood on Russian River wrought record disaster in Sonoma County

The Valentine’s Day flood of 1986 'opened up a lot of people's eyes in the community that a disaster that size really could happen,' a longtime resident recalls.|

No one seems to know who installed the rope that spanned Main Street in Guerneville 30 years ago at the outset of what would be the worst Sonoma County flood in generations.

But as the Russian River crested and spilled its banks, and as the current grew dangerously swift, it was that simple handrail that guided to safety anyone forced by need or circumstance to wade through the hip-high flows that inundated the town during those stormy and perilous days.

For those who experienced it and still speak of it today, the disaster known as the Valentine’s Day Flood evokes unshakable memories of an unrelenting downpour that still carries lessons about the importance of preparation and limits of flood control amid an onslaught by Mother Nature.

And that Guerneville rope, strung between the old Lark Drugs building and what was then a video store, was as fitting a symbol as any of the make-do response first mounted by neighbors and local authorities and that ultimately involved the National Guard in helicopters and rescue boats. For those in the flood zone along the lower river, it was the tenuous lifeline they held to while navigating a world transformed into something unseen, before or since.

“That flood opened up a lot of people’s eyes in the community that a disaster that size really could happen, and when it does it could become utter chaos and extremely, extremely dangerous,” said Herb Genelly III, who was working as an emergency medic for Guerneville Fire.

Looking back three decades later on the six-day deluge that produced the worst Russian River flood on record, those who endured it consider the chaos, loss and desperation of that time with a mixture of grief and heartache, but also wonder and incredulity. It was, many recall, such an unreal experience.

It already had been a wet, El Niño winter, and the ground was fully saturated when a series of tropical storms swept in beginning Feb. 13, 1986, a Thursday leading into a three-day weekend capped by Presidents’ Day.

Over the ensuing six days, the skies opened up. While nearly 12 inches fell in Santa Rosa, more than 20 inches came down in the coastal hills beyond Forestville, most of it draining into the Russian River, where it formed a light brown torrent hurtling toward the ocean.

Every water body in the North Bay overflowed: Spring Lake, the Petaluma River, the Laguna de Santa Rosa, Clear Lake, the Napa River, Santa Rosa Creek.

In the Central Valley, levee breaks wreaked havoc in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and other regions. In the Sierra Nevada, blizzard conditions stranded thousands. States of emergency were declared in 29 California counties.

In the Sonoma Valley, tragedy struck when four teens out on a lark in a rubber raft capsized in Sonoma Creek. One managed to crawl out of the roaring mess, and another was plucked from an overhanging tree by a sheriff’s helicopter crew.

But two younger boys were found drowned the next morning, including one who was tangled in some tree roots at the foot of his yard, said former Kenwood resident Richard Gulson, then a volunteer Kenwood Fire dispatcher.

“I will remember it forever,” he said.

Communities along the lower Russian River were hit the hardest. Twice the river crested above flood levels, submerging streets and depositing in buildings inches, in some cases feet, of silt that would quickly dry into something like concrete once the sun came out.

Some thought they were in the worst of it on Saturday, Feb. 15, when the river rose more than 6 feet above flood stage, reaching 36.4 feet. But after the river began to retreat another round of intense rainfall set in the next night and the floodwaters began to swell again.

Nine inches of rain fell on Guerneville between 4 p.m. Sunday and 4 p.m. Monday, bringing the river to nearly 48 feet before midnight. By early Tuesday, it crested at 48.9 feet, a record that stands today.

Former west county Supervisor Mike Reilly said it was like having someone dump a full bucket of water on your head over and over again. At that time, Reilly was executive director of River Community Services and found himself coordinating aid, assistance and recovery.

“It rained really hard, and it rained that way for a long time,” Reilly, 71, said from his Forestville home. “Sometimes you get those storm bursts where you get the really hard rain for 15 minutes and then it lightens up. Well, this didn’t lighten up. It didn’t stop.”

Two years earlier, workers had completed Warm Springs Dam, which held back the flows of Dry Creek, a Russian River tributary, and created Lake Sonoma - the region’s largest reservoir and main supply of North Bay drinking water. Some boosters who touted the controversial project in the run-up to its construction extolled the dam’s benefits for flood protection. Afterward, officials said it spared downstream residents what would have been an additional 5 vertical feet of flooding.

But even longtime residents accustomed to dealing with the Russian River’s periodic floods before the dam were stunned at the disaster that was unfolding in their streets and neighborhoods.

“The old-timers, the people who’d been there all their life, they’d never seen anything like it,” said Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, who remembers looking in on the iconic Pink Elephant pub at one point and seeing people seated at the bar, with their feet dangling in water.

“Places that never flooded before were flooding,” said Andrea Neeley, 72, of Guerneville. The water “just kept rising and rising.”

And it was loud - “roaring,” said Petaluma resident Phil Grosse, who was trapped in his family cabin near Hacienda with his wife. “It was making a huge noise.”

The floodwaters spilled over the banks and spread into Forestville, Rio Nido, Guerneville, Monte Rio and other hamlets along the lower river, creating a huge, chocolate-brown lake that eventually reached 17 feet above flood stage. It got so high that debris and wreckage surging downstream eventually jammed against bridges that, on a normal day, would soar many yards above the river’s surface.

The flood turned streets into canals and isolated whole neighborhoods and downtown blocks. Drinking water and electricity were both cut off, eliminating basic necessities. Communication by phone - landline only - was spotty, and forecasts for those seeking to stick it out were limited.

Some people remember days of discomfort in the same drenched socks, footwear and clothes. One woman said the stench that set in with the flood persisted for a full year afterward.

“Nobody knew for sure what was going to happen,” said Albe Kass, longtime owner of the Riverlane Resort in downtown Guerneville, where three of 16 riverfront cabins were lost to the flood. One still stands intact where it landed on a neighbors’ property down the street, said Kass, 85. Friends saw another cabin, which they recognized from its paint color, break apart after smacking into a bridge. The rest of the resort suffered extensive damage.

Like others in town who were told the controversial Warm Springs Dam project would prevent downstream floods, Kass had not renewed his flood insurance in advance of the big one of ’86.

Propane tanks, which now are required to be fastened down, represented a particular danger. Many of them tossed around in the flood were punctured by debris and at risk of explosion. Many of them vented, others found ignition sources and could be seen rushing downstream ablaze, Baxman said.

“It was spectacular,” Herb Genelly III, then an emergency medic with Guerneville Fire, said of the flaming tanks. “The good part was at least when they were floating down and on fire that you knew the source was going to burn out.”

Genelly, now 54, said the scene in town was beyond surreal. Many of the buildings flooded and partly submerged remained aglow, their lights on.

At least three houses on the river caught fire at various points, the flames consuming what was above the water before dying out.

Authorities scrambled to keep pace with the swelling emergency. The flood zone, stretching more than 12 miles from Forestville to Monte Rio, had few roads that were easily navigable.

Deputies zoomed about in rubber Zodiac boats while National Guard troops conducted rescues and delivered supplies with twin-bladed Chinook and Huey helicopters, huge watercraft and 2-ton transport trucks.

“I’m not a veteran of the Vietnam War,” said former Guerneville resident Rory McDonald, 60, who spent days shuttling friends and strangers about in his little motorboat. “But I can only imagine that’s what it seemed like for a lot of veterans.”

More than 1,700 people were evacuated from Guerneville and neighboring communities. A thousand homes were damaged or destroyed. Losses reached an estimated at $25 million.

The destructive force of big floods was not limited to the water, and Russian River residents saw that fact daily as the torrent uprooted trees and pulled loose staircases, hot-tubs, porches and, eventually, whole buildings. The wreckage would shatter or burst against the concrete and steel spans of bridges as it barreled downstream.

The entire inventory of a lumberyard at the edge of Guerneville was swept away in the flood, recalled Herman J. Hernandez, a longtime local real estate broker. At a nearby construction yard, the office building was pulled off its foundation, slammed into a telephone pole and ultimately sent downstream, as well.

“’It’s unbelievable when you see the water at that magnitude, the strength that it has to do whatever damage,” he said. “It’s so forceful.”

Rosemarie Moscarelli was a sheriff’s dispatcher sent to work out of the Guerneville substation for the duration of the flood. She recalled people in rowboats and skiffs traveling through town, and even cruising the aisles of the flooded Safeway by canoe.

She dodged two close calls with the river in those days. The first came while standing on a bridge when a displaced building slammed into the span, nearly tumbling her into the water. Another came while in a boat, as the vessel navigated swift water and evaded loose power equipment and redwood trees.

During the flood, Moscarelli and some co-workers one night used a boat to return to her home for a few hours of rest. To get to the front door, they climbed just three steps. The rest of the two-flight outdoor staircase was underwater.

All that Moscarelli owned was in the submerged basement floor, swirling in the current and clinking against the walls.

“Let me tell you, it was creepy to hear your house groan because of the current that’s going through it,” said Moscarelli, 57, now of Somerset, Ky. “There was freezer down in the basement, and the freezer was bashing into the walls down there. That was a really creepy feeling.”

Evacuees were offered temporary shelter at the Veterans Memorial Building in downtown Guerneville, though it was abandoned when water crept too close. The shelter was then moved to St. Hubert’s Hall off Armstrong Woods Road and then to a higher elevation, St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church.

Each day, evacuees who had stayed the night would leave the church for the small cemetery farther out of town where they would be airlifted by helicopter to Santa Rosa.

McDonald said the graveyard made the scene all the more surreal. People stood around with “ghost looks” on their faces, he said. Some were seated on gravestones while dogs that had to be left behind ran loose, awaiting the arrival of the giant Chinooks that would carry them out.

The makeshift contraptions that people used to get around were stranger still.

Genelly remembers seeing a couple of people he thought were men sitting in an emptied chest of drawers, using it like a dugout, paddling with their arms through Pocket Canyon and somehow staying afloat.

“There was another guy that got a weed wacker, and he mounted it somehow on a surfboard, and used that,” he said. “It was crazy some of the things they used.”

He also remembers responding to a cardiac emergency, “swimming with water up to my chest, holding the defibrillator over my head, hoping we could get to the house in time. It was just craziness.”

The storm forged necessary bonds among strangers.

Santa Rosa resident Coni Arendt was 8½ months pregnant when the flood hit, and she and her husband had to flee their Forestville home on Old River Road.

They loaded the dog in a canoe that had come with the house they had been preparing for their son’s arrival and paddled to the higher-ground home of some neighbors - “weekend people” they had never met.

“We said, ‘Hi, could we come in your house?’?” Arendt, 65, recalled. “We spent the night at their house - of course, terrified that they would flood, too.”

For many who endured the flood, the world beyond the reach of water was an unknown for days. Genelly was hit full force with that contrast when delivering a patient to the hospital in Sebastopol.

He saw people going about their daily lives, grocery shopping, chatting and smiling, seemingly unaware of “this horrible disaster” a few miles away.

“I didn’t have any expectation that anybody could do anything but it was really, really strange,” he said, “because I went from one moment thinking, ‘I would kill for a clean, dry pair of stocks,’ to ‘Here are people just doing, getting, whatever they want.’

“You just kind of felt like you went from normal to a war zone of sorts,” he said.

For many, the experience was scarring.

Julie Nielsen, now a resident of West Jordan, Utah, was 19 with a month-old baby and newly arrived in Monte Rio when she and her husband found themselves suddenly without home and ultimately facing several months in a tent on the side of the road.

She said she still shakes for hours if she’s awakened in the night by a storm.

“I don’t think I ever in my life went through anything as scary as running away from river water,” she said, “and I ran away from it for days.”

As the water retreated for good, it left devastation in its wake.

Reilly said there were challenges acquiring federal disaster aid as quickly as homeowners needed it, not to mention resorts and other tourist-related businesses left with just a few months to prepare for the make-or-break summer months.

But the help did come through, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency became an important partner with county government in the ensuing effort to elevate several hundred homes out of the flood zone. As a result, a 1995 flood on the river did significantly less damage.

The Valentine’s Day Flood also led to a community preparedness committee and new training for flood response at the fire station, Hernandez and Genelly said.

“A lot of things finally happened after that disaster that took a proactive approach to kind of mitigating a lot of what happened back then,” Genelly said.

The way the community came together during the flood and in the aftermath helped relieve tensions, Reilly said, in particular between the growing gay community at the time and the “hippies and the rednecks, which were the major population forces on the river.”

“When people got out in the community and started helping their neighbors with whatever they could do. ... It seemed to change the tone of the community in terms of the tolerance level for different lifestyles,” Reilly said. “I just remember being really struck by that feeling of the community coming together around that in a way that it really hadn’t before.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the flood occurred during an El Niño weather pattern. It was transitioning into a weak El Niño at the time.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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