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Significant flooding in central Healdsburg (w/video)

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Healdsburg took the brunt of the storm that walloped Sonoma County on Thursday as a creek overflowed and sent water into more than two dozen downtown businesses.

Fast-rising Foss Creek invaded surface streets, including several main thoroughfares — Healdsburg Avenue and Grove Street — in some cases sending water a foot or so deep into stores and restaurants.

The flooding knocked out traffic lights, closed down the heart of town for hours, and submerged some cars unlucky enough to be parked in the wrong place, or whose driver tried to navigate too-high water.

In some cases, such as a Safeway parking lot that had been transformed into a lake, the somber scene of inundated cars was contrasted by kayakers casually paddling around the vehicles.

The storm dropped 5.9 inches of rain on Healdsburg during the 24-hour period ending at 4 p.m., according to the National Weather Service. Healdsburg has experienced flooding before when big storms hit, but longtime residents say there hasn’t been anything like Thursday’s storm for decades.

“This was the worst I’ve seen in many years,” said Carla Howell, a Chamber of Commerce president and former mayor. “I would compare it to the ’96-’97 flood, when it was really bad then.”

Howell said Thursday night’s “Dine Around Healdsburg,” a charity benefit in which people enjoy a course at different dining spots, had to be canceled because several restaurants — including Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar and Chalkboard — were flood-damaged and couldn’t open.

Many businesses along a two-block stretch of Healdsburg Avenue north of the Plaza, from North Street to Piper Street, were flooded as the street took on the appearance of a creek in the morning light.

“It was moving fast. It looked exactly like a river out there. You couldn’t see the street at all,” is how Margie Hansen, an employee at Costeaux Bakery, described the scene that unfolded shortly after she arrived to open for breakfast.

Outside, in back of the bakery, “was a river, too,” she said.

Hansen and her co-workers watched the water rise to the seats on the front terrace chairs, then advance into the restaurant and then the kitchen.

“We started sweeping and scooping the water toward the drains,” she said.

Their actions and the ebbing waters enabled the bakery to open in time for lunch.

Even though many of the business owners along the street put out sandbags the night before in advance of the big storm, it didn’t keep them dry. Passing trucks and buses created wakes, sending waves of water lapping into stores before emergency workers closed the street to traffic.

“We had ankle-deep water in here,” said Steve Kerkish, owner of Dovetail Collection, a store featuring furniture and fine art pieces made of exotic hardwoods. He was cleaning up the remains of the water and mud with the help of a shop vac, and said it was too early to assess the damage to his merchandise.

On the same side of the block, Everywhere Hardwear clothing store, Toad Hollow wines and Chuck Foley Fine Leathers were just a few of the stores that reported water incursions.

Across the street, businesses also failed to stem the rising tide of floodwaters, including Frank and Ernie’s Bar, where four inches covered the floors.

“I was crying,” said Vivian Flowers, who just bought the place and plans to re-open it as a steak house called Wildflowers Saloon. She and her husband, Howard, were drying the floor with the help of some powerful “turbo heaters.”

“We were supposed to open Dec. 19. I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she said.

John and Zeke’s saloon also had to deal with rushing water, but well before noon it appeared to be mopped up with patrons once again bellying up to the bar.

Others weren’t quite so fortunate.

“We lost a lot of money today,” said Gabrielle Dorsett, whose hair salon was forced to close for the day after about a foot of water came in. “It was like a river flowing through the store,” she said.

She recalled a similar flood into the store in 2009.

But for music store owner Ron Charlesworth, a relative newcomer a couple of doors away, the flooding was a new experience. His guitars, drums and other musical instruments were largely undamaged, but the water that came in from the back forced the cancellation of about 50 music lessons on Thursday.

At the Healdsburg Hotel, fast-rising water shortly before 8 a.m. threatened about 20 cars in the parking lot near Foss Creek, forcing employees to scramble to move them to higher ground.

“I got every single car out,” said Emma Martinson, the hotel’s director of operations, who said some of the BMWs would definitely have gotten damaged inside. “We got lucky.”

On the other side of Foss Creek, in the Vineyard Plaza shopping center, most stores seemed to barely have escaped flooding as the parking lot turned into an aquatic attraction with bystanders marveling at the drowned cars and kayakers launching their crafts.

Safeway workers piled cases of bottled water outside the store to keep the floodwaters at bay.

“You fight fire with fire; you fight water with water,” Safeway employee Jose Cuevas said.

Grove Street was flooded for more than a half-mile, from the five-way intersection to Dry Creek Road, where the creek had also jumped its banks. At one point, the Highway 101 Central Healdsburg exit also was closed.

The Mitchell Lane shopping center also was closed due to flooding.

Longtime residents compared it to floods of days gone by.

Jon Wright said the half-foot of water inside his Mill Street feed store was even higher than levels seen in the epic February 1986 flood.

City Manager David Mickaelian said the city was still assessing the extent of damage, and it was uncertain how many businesses were flooded. But he agreed that at least a couple of dozen suffered water damage.

Mickaelian discounted speculation that the flooding was worse because of clogged city storm drains and lack of maintenance.

“It’s a challenge we have, when you have too much water and not enough space,” he said. “Staff has been diligently clearing storm drains in anticipation of the storm for the last week or so.”

Sandbags kept the water out of Healdsburg Cigar and Beverage Emporium on Healdsburg Avenue, but the business was forced to close.

“We do need the rain because of the drought, but it’s not good for business,” owner Aamir Khan said.

Police Chief Kevin Burke said there were four minor traffic collisions, and a man was stranded on top of his car at Safeway. Handling traffic was his department’s biggest concern, he said.

Healdsburg firefighters found themselves in the position of not being able to use their station, Battalion Chief Kim Thompson said. Firefighters and engines were out on calls, but the station was inaccessible, Thompson said.

The storm caused fewer problems in Cloverdale, which had some minor issues. Geyserville firefighters were busy, including with multiple reports of basements flooding, Thompson said.

Staff Writer Randi Rossmann contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas.

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