Weather roller coaster continues on storm-battered North Coast as flood threat persists

A new storm coming Wednesday and Thursday was forecast to again raise the Russian River toward flood stage in Guerneville.|

The fallout from two weeks of punishing storms across the North Coast is beginning to become clear even as forecasters warn of new rainstorms and potential flooding ahead.

Though the Russian River began receding Tuesday after peaking just below flood stage in the early morning, another round of sustained rainfall predicted to come through Wednesday and Thursday is expected to drive it upward again and reach just above the 32-foot flood stage in Guerneville.

That somewhat unwelcome news came as Sonoma County officials announced an initial $11 million estimate in damage to local roads and infrastructure from the storms.

The countywide toll was most pronounced in soggy west county. On Salmon Creek Road, east of Bodega Bay, a massive washout left about 15 residents unable to leave their neighborhood.

To the north, a landslide took out one lane of Moscow Road in Villa Grande along the Russian River — not far from an even worse slide triggered by the 2019 floods.

Mendocino County authorities also reported late Tuesday the death of a 68-year-old Fort Bragg woman who was killed about 1:40 a.m. Monday when a tree fell on her home as she slept.

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office said Susan Lee Stever lived on Highway 1 about 6 miles north of Fort Bragg.

Stever is among 17 people known to have died in California during severe storms over the past week and the third to die on the North Coast. The others are Aeon Tocchini, 2, who was killed Jan. 4 when a tree fell on his Occidental home, and Edgar Ulysses Castillo, 37, who crashed in his tree service truck on Mountain View Road in Manchester on Friday. Castillo, an Elk Grove resident, was a contract worker traveling to help PG&E crews restore power.

The preliminary $11 million damage estimate was provided Tuesday to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors by Emergency Management Director Chris Godley in advance of the board’s unanimous proclamation of a local emergency.

Godley said an additional $378,000 has been spent on the county’s emergency response to the destructive weather, while private property owners have suffered an additional $3.2 million in estimated damage.

Public Infrastructure Director Johannes Hoevertz said Moscow Road and Salmon Creek Road represented the worst of the widespread damage.

The Salmon Creek washout occurred when a fallen tree jammed the culvert and the pressure of the backed up water tore open the road. Crews already have brought 60 feet of a temporary bridge to the site, with another 40 feet to be delivered Wednesday.

The plan is to have the temporary span in use by Friday. Hoevertz said county personnel had been in touch with the affected residents stuck in their homes, including an 80- or 90-year-old woman, to make sure they have what they need.

Rock and landslides also have closed portions of Geysers Road and Pine Flat Road in north county.

But Hoevertz said a more thorough inspection of public roads would wait until the weather cleared. He said he hoped that would be Friday.

But the stormy weather that’s been around for a week looked unlikely to loosen its grip on the region by then, according to forecasters, raising the prospect of another round of minor flooding Thursday and Friday at least along the Russian River.

The first of three new storms is expected to arrive early Wednesday morning, bringing two days of sustained rainfall predicted to drop up to 2½ inches in the inland valleys and 2 to 4 inches in the coastal hills, according to Jeff Lorber, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The fresh rain is now expected to drive the Russian River in Guerneville back up toward flood level, cresting Thursday afternoon just above its 32-foot flood stage. It peaked just below that level early Tuesday morning.

Amid a break in the rain Tuesday, as the river level dropped, Sonoma County authorities rescinded a week-old flood evacuation warning for thousands of residents in low-lying areas of the river and its tributaries between Healdsburg and Jenner.

But in the aftermath of a fresh forecast projecting renewed concern about flooding, Godley said Tuesday afternoon officials might reconsider.

“We’re going evaluate conditions on Wednesday to see if we need to take any more preventive measures,” he said.

The river may rise again after additional light rain Friday and another, wetter system coming through Saturday and Sunday.

The forecast is the product of strong jet stream that’s ushered in at least five atmospheric river storms to California in recent weeks. Three more are on the way, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday in a visit to storm-battered Santa Cruz County.

The technical term for the resulting yo-yo of river forecasts, Godley said, joking, is “roller coaster.”

That’s what it’s been for the entire past week, amid battering winds, coastal storm surge and heavy rain that has brought down hundreds of trees along the coast and inland, cut power to thousands of North Coast residents and left river residents in agonizing limbo over whether to stay or go.

The river forecast at one point was nearly eight feet above flood stage. Many business owners closed up and shifted into damage-control mode, raising everything they could above ground level.

Many of those in the remotest corners of the county have endured a week without power even as the overall number of customers affected by power failures declined from almost 20,000 last week to about 1,000 on the northern Sonoma Coast by late Tuesday.

“It’s been rough,” said Richard Pego, a Sea Ranch resident, whose lights went dark the morning of Jan. 4 along with more than 3,000 other households and businesses in the region around Gualala, The Sea Ranch and Stewarts Point.

Pego and his family have had to bathe using boiled tap water, and wear extra sweaters to stay warm because they don’t have a generator.

Pego even had to strap a flashlight to his head as he made his way to a motel in Gualala to get a warm shower, he said.

Paddy and Paul Batchelder, 20-year Sea Ranch residents, said she and her husband have been surviving fairly comfortably because of their propane-run kitchen and generator, which they power up twice a day — just enough for them to download their emails and keep the fridge cold.

Sonoma Coast Fire District Chief Bonnie Plakos, a Sea Ranch resident, said arrival of the “bomb cyclone” last week was horrendous for people on the coast, with hundreds of trees falling around the 172-square-mile district, at least 10 of them into houses.

One man was badly injured trying to clear a tree from the road and could only get as far as the Fort Bragg hospital, thanks in part to an escort from South Coast Volunteer firefighters who were prepared to cut up any trees that fell on the road.

“We had some really bad days,” she said.

The prolonged power failure has been a tough test, even with the high numbers of generators and wood stoves in use among rural residents. Some have invited neighbors into their own homes to get warm, while several public buildings, like recreation centers, also have been opened.

“It’s really gone on for a long time,” she said.

Many of those from the lowest lying areas of the river may take their time to return home, given the uncertainty about the river and lingering mud and floodwater.

More than 20 RVs and trailers that had fled Mirabel RV Camp and River Bend Resort and Forestville, for instance, were still taking refuge at the Forestville Youth Park on Tuesday, according to Tim Miller, executive director of West County Community Services.

River Bend Resort Manager Evan Havstad said he still needed to make sure electric meters, sewer and water hookups were working after five to 10 — of 45 — sites went under water.

He said he hoped to have folks back on Thursday, despite the flood forecast. “We’re anticipating the projections will do what they’ve done for the last week, where it aims high and comes in low,” he said.

At the Rio Nido Roadhouse, which was severely damaged by flooding in 2019, owners Brad Metzger and his wife, Raena, were scrambling to reassemble what they’d torn apart in anticipation of flooding so they could have limited service by Tuesday night.

“I think we’re going to squeak by on this one,” said Metzger. “We’re all just super relieved, and we’ve got employees coming back. Everyone is just tired. It just darn simple: the bad weather for that long. It’s just sloppy and cold. It just gets on everybody.

“We’re glad we turned the corner.”

Staff Writers Madison Smalstig and Emma Murphy contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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