Although ordered to leave because of potentially calamitous flooding, many Russian River-area residents plan to stay

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Jilla Gauthier loaded antique furniture, collectibles and clothes from her two Main Street shops onto a U-Haul truck, as heavy rain battered waterlogged Guerneville throughout Tuesday.

Black plastic bags filled with clothes lay on the floor of one of her shops, Queen River Clothing. Wooden shelves were placed on top of metal clothing racks to keep them from getting wet should the floodwater inundate Guerneville’s main thoroughfare as predicted by Wednesday night.

Gauthier, who also owns River Queen Handmade & Collectibles, worked feverishly to save what she could with a single regret on her mind.

“I was a fool and I didn’t buy flood insurance,” she said.

Gauthier was among thousands of Russian River-area residents and business owners who spent Tuesday preparing for what’s expected to be the region’s worst flooding in two decades. The river is forecast to rise to 46 feet by 11 p.m. Wednesday. If the river crests at 45 feet or higher that would put this flood among the region’s worst in history. The devastating New Year’s Day 1997 flood was the last time the river reached 45 feet.

Although county officials Tuesday afternoon issued a mandatory evacuation for towns along the river including about 3,800 people, several residents were intending to stay and ride out the storm. Many swarmed Guerneville grocery stores and markets to grab bottled water, milk, beer and nonperishable food. They bought toilet paper, firewood and filled their cars and trucks with gasoline.

Inside the downtown Safeway, shoppers stood in long lines, some asking each other how high the river was expected to reach.

“They say 46 feet!” said one man pushing a cart with several packages of bottled water.

As people walked to and from the supermarket, emergency alerts could be heard shrieking on cellphones and a couple of people scrambled to check the news.

Mike Johnson, a retiree who recently moved to Guerneville from Washington state, walked to the Safeway from his home on First Street, unsure of whether to evacuate or stay in his home.

“When they say everybody get out, does that mean me?” Johnson asked.

Johnson was worried he wouldn’t be able to get in and out of Guerneville because of road closures. “That’s why I’m shopping, to get enough stuff to get me by for a couple of days. If this store goes under, there goes your food.”

Those who had been through previous floods knew exactly what to expect Wednesday.

Jeff Bridges, general manager and part owner of the R3 Hotel, calmly coordinated flood preparations on Tuesday after his last guest left a day early to avoid being stranded in Guerneville. Bridges said he expected much of the first floor of the popular 23-room resort to be under 7 feet or more of water.

“It will probably reach to the top of the door frame there,” he said, standing at the far end of the hotel’s bar. “We will need a total remodel.”

Hotel workers moved office equipment, computers, important business records and liquor to the second floor of the hotel. Bridges, who is also president of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce, said he’s been with the resort since 1992 and Wednesday’s flood would mark his fourth.

Bridges said previous floods, including one in 2006 that forced a significant hotel remodel, happened around New Year’s Eve. He said he and other Guerneville residents thought they were out of flood danger that year.

“We thought we were kind of out of the woods,” he said.

Bridges said he and his colleagues would work hard to get whatever they could to the second floor of the hotel before the floodwater comes.

“The more you get up, the more you get out, the less you have to clean because it’s nasty,” he said of the water. “When it floods, it’s everything, sewer lines, septic systems, garbage cans. ...We’re fortunate we have rooms upstairs.”

Because of the expected calamitous weather, the county’s emergency homeless shelter in Guerneville opened at noon at the request of county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, said Pat Jones, shelter manager for West County Community Services.

Shortly after it opened, about two dozen people with sleeping bags and backpacks had already claimed a spot on the floor of one of two open rooms. By 5 p.m., officials transported them to shelters in Santa Rosa where they would be safely away from the Russian River area.

People living along the river can go to either of two emergency shelters opened Tuesday — Sebastopol Center for the Arts, 282 S. High St., and Sonoma County Fairgrounds Grace Pavilion, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707- 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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