Sonoma County officials order mandatory Russian River evacuations

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Thousands of people were ordered to leave homes along the Russian River on Tuesday before they were overtaken by rising floodwaters as an atmospheric river stalled over Sonoma County, inundating the region with unprecedented amounts of rain.

The brunt of the storm has now passed, but its impact will only grow Wednesday as water continues to pour into the rain-swollen river from the hills above. Residents in Guerneville were warned to brace for the worst flooding in more two decades before the Russian River crests late Wednesday night and slowly begins to recede.

About 3,800 people were ordered by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office to evacuate more than two dozen communities — including Guerneville, Monte Rio and Duncans Mills — in an area that stretched from Asti in the north to Jenner in the west, where the river empties into the Pacific Ocean. Emergency shelters were opened in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol to house displaced residents.

The river was forecast to crest at 11 p.m. Wednesday in Guerneville at 46.1 feet, its highest level since 1997 when it hit 45 feet. That would still be shy of the record level set by the infamous Valentine’s Day flood of February 1986, when the river submerged much of Guerneville at 49.5 feet.

“We’re talking about access to all of Guerneville being blocked by water. Unless you’re prepared to wait this out for a few days, we recommend people get out of Guerneville. Don’t just move to higher ground so we’re not having to rescue you,” Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum said.

Russian River at Guerneville

Santa Rosa received 5.66 inches of rain Tuesday, breaking a record for daily precipitation dating back to 1902, the National Weather Service reported. The downpour brought 6.57 inches of rain to Santa Rosa in the 36 hours since the atmospheric river arrived Monday morning. Venado, in the hills west of Healdsburg, amassed more than a foot of rain — an astounding 14.16 inches — over the period.

With the ground fully saturated from the wet winter and recent heavy storms, runoff and overflowing creeks and streams were expected to push the river past flood stage at 32 feet Tuesday night. The river was also expected to rise above its banks in Healdsburg and Hopland before dawn Wednesday.

More than 20 county roads were reported closed by flooding Tuesday night from Sonoma Valley to Healdsburg.

West County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the lower river area, said the storm exceeded initial forecasts that estimated the river’s crest in Guerneville at 34 or 35 feet.

“It has been a bit of a sleeper storm,” Hopkins said.

But there were dramatic moments, she said, describing a video she received from a friend in Cazadero that showed uprooted full-sized trees floating down Austin Creek.

The unrelenting rains were carried by an atmospheric river — the name given to moisture-laden =bands of water that roll into California from the Pacific Ocean — that stalled over the North Bay on Tuesday, National Weather Service meteorologist Rick Canepa said. Wind and rain are expected to ease Wednesday, Canepa said, with scattered showers continuing into Thursday.

Another storm system is expected to come off the ocean late Friday into Saturday, with a chance of showers Sunday. Next week, a stronger storm with “a juicier flow to it” is expected late Tuesday, Canepa said.

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In Santa Rosa, city workers were in the field monitoring areas known for “localized flooding,” but no problems had occurred, city spokeswoman Adriane Mertens said. Crews were also keeping an eye on the hilly fire-scarred areas in Fountaingrove at risk for landslides, urging residents to be vigilant and call 911 if any soil appeared to be slipping.

Signs of possible mudslides include cracked roadways and the sound of trees cracking, Sonoma County Emergency Manager Chris Godley said.

Sonoma County officials asked people to be on the lookout for signs of mudslides throughout the county, especially in areas burned during the 2017 October wildfires, Godley said during news conference Tuesday afternoon. Teams were deployed to northeast Santa Rosa, where the Tubbs fire burned, as well as the Sonoma Valley, where the Nuns fire burned, but found no significant land movement there, Godley said.

The rain-soaked pastures of the West Sonoma County hills are rife for landslides and falling trees, said Joe Pozzi, a Valley Ford sheep and cattle rancher. Rain is typically welcome, but “it’s all about timing,” Pozzi said, noting that all the water coming down now is running right off the land.

“We could use a few days of drying out,” he said, expressing a thought that many city dwellers might share.

Caitlin Cornwall, a biologist with Sonoma Ecology Center, saw a lost opportunity in the water rushing through roadside ditches and city storm sewers. Landowners, nonprofits and local governments need to think more about capturing rainwater instead of getting rid of it as quickly as possible, Cornwall said.

“This is all the water we get, folks,” she said. “Come June we’re going to wish we had more.”

Tuesday was a busy day for first responders countywide, and a memorable one for some residents who found themselves wading through muddy brown floodwaters pouring over county roads.

Fire crews in west and east Sonoma County fielded multiple calls for drivers stuck in cars or abandoned vehicles left in flood waters. Schell Vista firefighters pulled two vehicles out of deep water on Broadway in Schellville.

The deep water also forced Schell Vista firefighters to evacuate their main station at Highway 121 and 12. Between calls they camped at the older station on Eighth Street East and East Napa Street, Schell Vista Fire Chief Ray Mulas said.

Multiple Russian River calls included fallen trees, including a large fir that fell into a house on Highway 116 north of Guerneville, taking out a corner of the house and causing major damage.

A major mudslide in the 9300 block of Bohemian Highway closed the road Tuesday afternoon, and Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said it would remain blocked for “a long time.”

The slide, including trees and debris, was six to eight feet deep, he said.

Graton firefighters were running during the night, getting their first call for a water rescue at 3:30 a.m. when a newspaper delivery driver drove into submerged Graton Road in downtown Graton, said Graton Fire Chief Bill Bullard. That was followed by three teens who drove into the same flooded area from the west side and needed help out.

Hopkins warned that some small lower river communities could be cut off by rising water and urged residents to get out early from places like Rio Nido.

Regular updates from Sonoma County officials were sent out via various methods Tuesday, including on the County of Sonoma Facebook page and the neighbor networking platform Nextdoor, county spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque said.

Two other alert systems, Nixle and SoCo Alert, which requires users to opt-in for notices, were also used to provide the public with information, she said.

Wireless emergency alerts, which are managed by the Federal Communications Commission and target phone users in a specific geographic area, were deployed Tuesday to alert residents along the Russian River of the mandatory evacuations, county spokeswoman Briana Khan said.

A map of areas that will be flooded is available at SoCoEmergency.org.

Road closure information is at RoadConditions.sonoma-county.org.

Staff writers Martin Espinoza and Austin Murphy contributed to this report. Staff Writer Guy Kovner can be reached at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. Staff Writer Randi Rossmann can be reached at 707-521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez can be reached at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com.

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