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Volunteers do the dirty work in Russian River flood cleanup

Several dozen volunteers, most of whom escaped flooding themselves, joined forces Sunday to help clear away litter in the aftermath of last week's flooding on the Russian River, contributing to ongoing recovery efforts even as another series of storms lies in wait for the region.

Armed with heavy bags, trash pickers, shovels and brooms, more than 30 people spread out around downtown collecting everything from abandoned bicycle frames to mud-soaked clothing, cigarette butts to broken glass - some of it part of a layer of slippery muck deposited by the receding river. The rest of the trash was on dry land, and gathered before it could find its way to the water some other time.

Community leaders and regular folks joined the effort, organized largely by the Clean River Alliance, a volunteer group that works year round to keep trash from entering the river and making its way to the ocean.

Russian River firefighters were there too, using a fire hose to wash down an asphalt lane at the entrance to Riverkeeper Park and helping volunteers scrape away a thick coating of muddy silt the river left behind.

A few blocks away, Vira Fauss from Friends of Fife Creek, found young native plantings beneath the mud, while others busied themselves at the creek bank, retrieving a large plastic tub and a rolling suitcase among the items taken away by the flooding.

The collaborative cleanup came amid a flurry of activity along the still-swollen river, as flood victims confronted their soggy homes and belongings, tearing out wallboard and insulation, junking furniture and other property.

Sunday was one of at least three volunteer clean-up days planned in the coming week to support the lower river community and prevent the abandoned detritus from washing into the river and ocean when the next rain arrives, expected to be Wednesday.

“We could get another 5 inches,” new Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said as she and several companions cleared debris from a walled walkway behind an abandoned Mill Street hotel.

Dumpsters set up at the local park-and-ride lot Friday for use by those with storm-related losses had been busy nonstop, collecting every conceivable kind of material, county worker Mark Phillipsen said. The full dumpsters had been swapped out dozens of times for empty ones, a testament to the volume of property left unusable when the river spilled its banks, he said.

“A lot of sofas, mattresses, chairs,” Phillipsen said. “A lot of Sheetrock. It's pretty wet, slimy stuff. I helped some people get rid of some wet insulation. I was surprised by how heavy it was.”

A Red Cross disaster relief truck doled out cleanup kits and gloves, garbage bags, mops, squeegees and bleach along with personal items such as diapers, snacks and water bottles. Another Red Cross truck delivered supplies into neighborhoods. Nursing and mental health support were offered, as well, all of it volunteer.

Several volunteers said they were inspired to participate by visits to Goat Rock State Beach at the Russian River's mouth in Jenner, where they observed a disturbing array and volume of trash apparently washed downstream.

“We see stuff floating in the river all the time - a lot of bottles, a lot of plastic,” said Randy Hughes, 64, who recently retired to Monte Rio with his wife, Carol Hughes.

The couple was part of a contingent that walked the Guerneville footbridge in search of trash Sunday, then ventured underneath to the remnants of a homeless encampment before approaching the muddy banks on the south side of the river not far from Guerneville River Park.

Across the water in downtown, Erin Cardiff and her three daughters used pickers with pincers to retrieve all manner of garbage from behind a row of bushes on Church Street.

Cardiff, a resident of Forestville, said most of her neighbors' homes were flooded last week though hers was not. But she and her girls, Hanna, 6, Tessa, 9, and Jenna, 11, had seen what the river carried down so they wanted to do something about it.

“We feel like we were fortunate,” she said, “so we want to help others.”

The Clean River Alliance invites all comers to meet at 10 a.m. today at the Guerneville Plaza to continue the cleanup effort.

On Friday, a Post Flood Day of Action that will include North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael is planned, beginning in the plaza at 9:30 a.m. and running until 3 p.m.

More information is available on Facebook at Clean River Alliance, or by calling Chris Brokate at (707) 322-8304.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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