'We’re an island': Flooding cuts off entire towns of Guerneville and Monte Rio

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The Russian River rose to its highest level in a generation late Wednesday, flooding storm-battered neighborhoods up and down the main stem and turning several lower river towns into islands disconnected from the rest of Sonoma County because floodwater and mudslides closed major roads.

Thousands of people were displaced as the roiling river escaped its banks and flattened into a broad expanse of brown plasma that swept through vineyards, riverside neighborhoods and other low-lying areas, swamping cars and picking up all kinds of debris, including a dumpster and port-a-potties seen carried away in the swift current.

The river crested at 45.5 feet at 10 p.m. after three days of staggering rainfall that in the wettest areas west of Healdsburg surpassed 20 inches.

Even Santa Rosa boasted a three-day total of 8.76 inches from the atmospheric river that stalled overhead, the National Weather Service said.

The resulting flood is now on record as the worst since New Year’s Day 1997, during which the river rose to 45 feet in Guerneville, and the sixth worst since 1940. The largest flood recorded occurred in 1986, when the lower river there crested at 49.5 feet.

Sonoma County officials estimated 2,022 homes, businesses and other buildings had taken on floodwater, based on a preliminary analysis of flood maps, a county spokesman said. The water was expected to begin receding by midnight Wednesday but remain above flood stage of 32 feet for 24 hours, county officials said.

The county put its preliminary storm-related costs at $25 million, including an estimated $2.5 million in emergency response, said Supervisor David Rabbitt, board chairman.

Though Guerneville and nearby communities like Monte Rio bore the brunt of the rising water, as is typical, flooding also was reported along riverfront properties elsewhere, including Healdsburg.

In Sebastopol, the Laguna de Santa Rosa spilled over into The Barlow marketplace, which took on several feet of water, and into the city-owned Park Village mobile home park.

Flooding and storm damage also disrupted general travel, schools and mail delivery around the county, even as streams and river sections that rose late Tuesday and early Wednesday began to recede.

Thousands of consumers around Sonoma County lost power, including a peak of 7,700 households as of Wednesday evening, a PG&E spokeswoman said.

About 265 customers in a flooded area of Forestville also had their natural gas service cut overnight, spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said. She said those customers were to be notified via telephone and would have their pilot lights relit by PG&E workers once gas service was restored.

On Tuesday, 18 PG&E employees and contract workers were trapped overnight on Fort Ross Road in Cazadero by mudslides that prevented them from getting out of an area where they had been making repairs. They were airlifted out by helicopters on Wednesday afternoon, Contreras said.

The California National Guard has deployed six high-water trucks and about 30 personnel to help with round-the-clock rescue efforts and flood-related missions, primarily in west Sonoma County, working out of the Graton field command post established by local emergency response agency, National Guard representatives said.

Four CHP and Cal Fire helicopters also patrolled the flood zone by air to assist multiple fire agencies and Sonoma County sheriff’s personnel with rescue operations Wednesday, a county spokesman said.

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“We’ve done about 40 rescues, collectively, as a group,” Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said late Wednesday, adding that an additional 19 people had just been rescued in Sebastopol, where the city-owned Park Village low-income community adjacent to the Laguna de Santa Rosa was among those areas under water.

Sonoma County supervisors have declared a local emergency and are requesting that California Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaim a state of emergency that would make state disaster aid and assistance and relief programs available to those in the county who suffered damage from the recent storms and flooding, as well as waive regulations that could hinder response and recovery efforts, county officials said.

The cities of Sebastopol and Healdsburg also have declared local emergencies because of flood damage in those communities.

In Healdsburg, inundation of the municipal wastewater treatment plant had caused some damage and required the city to suspend operations, though no discharges had occurred, City Manager David Mickaelian said Wednesday afternoon.

The now-historic flood marks the second time this month the Russian River has topped its banks, though two weeks ago it rose only about four feet above flood stage of 32 feet.

When it became clear far heavier rain would raise the water higher this week, emergency officials took action and on Tuesday issued mandatory evacuation orders to approximately 3,800 residents, some along the river’s upper reaches, but most in communities closer to its ocean exit, where the river crests later even as water up river has begun to recede.

Hundreds of people packed up and left even as the heaviest rain fell on Tuesday, but many stayed, stocking up at the local Safeway and hunkering down for the duration in what the hoped would be dry shelters either outside the flood zone or elevated after past flood showed their vulnerability.

Among them were Kenny Bishop, a retired landscaper whose second-floor Guerneville apartment, was still higher than the water as it reached 42 feet at daybreak Wednesday.

Standing on the corner of Mill and First streets, Bishop, 67, steadied himself with a cane at the edge of the brown floodwater and said he had enough food and wine to get him through the week.

“We’re an island,” he said.

The town of Guerneville, which straddles the river — its main street area, a hub of resorts and businesses, perched on the northern bank — often suffers the most damage.

But Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents west Sonoma County, said it’s important to remember many communities suffer when the river floods.

“Sometimes people forget about Rio Nido,” she said. “The damage to the Rio Nido Roadhouse breaks my heart. The owners, they do so much for the community, they do many fundraisers. Seeing the roadhouse underwater hit me really hard.”

Villa Grande is another one, she said, that’s often forgotten, as well as the Neeley Road area across the river from downtown Guerneville.

“It’s part of life, but it’s really hard when these really severe storms hit,” Hopkins said. “It’s still surprising. Anything above 40 feet really hits us hard.”

Essick said he spent the afternoon checking on emergency response efforts in west county, including observing the National Guard trucks, which have helped deliver emergency crews to certain locations, in addition to bringing people and pets out of flooded areas. But the trucks also have limitations and only can handle a few feet of water, so boats are necessary in many areas.

“I think the thing that struck me the most so far is I think our community evacuations went pretty well,” Essick said, “but as always, there are some folks that don’t heed the warning, so the theme today has been rescues.

“Yesterday, the theme was evacuate” he said Wednesday. “Today is we’re rescuing people who didn’t evacuate. Particularly in Guerneville, it makes it really difficult to rescue people at this point, because we’re having to do it by boat. That’s our transportation right now.”

Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said the worst of the storm passed by early Wednesday morning, leaving the fire department to do a few evacuations and wait for the floodwater to recede. Tuesday’s rising river brought a lot of danger, but no serious injuries, he said.

“We had mudslides, trees down, power poles and power lines down, power’s in the water and people still in the cars,” Baxman said.

Multiple roads in the area remained closed Wednesday night, including a stretch of Bohemian Highway. But the fire department was able to navigate the closures and reach the areas they needed to, with the exception of one spot on Freezeout Road in Duncans Mills that was inaccessible to the department.

“We’re kind of in an island ‘cause the water keeps moving up and cutting all the roads off,” he said.

The flooding caused more destruction than the last major flood in 1997, Baxman said.

“More damaged roads and more debris, and more mudslides and rock slides. A lot more. ”We had a lot of water these last two days,” he said.

Wednesday night, all was quiet.

“All of a sudden, it gets near the crest and it dies off, everything’s quiet. Then it comes to the recovery side and people start finding the damage,” Baxman said. “Then the real work start.”

National Weather Service forecaster Scott Rowe said the county could at least expect a few dry days ahead, with a chance of precipitation mostly south toward Monterey and Big Sur on Friday and perhaps a quarter or a half an inch Saturday in the North Bay before several more dry days.

The following schools are slated to close on Thursday: Forestville Union School District; Harmony School District, Guerneville School District, Kashia School District, Monte Rio School District, Montgomery School District, Oak Grove School District, Sebastopol Union School District, The REACH Charter School, Sebastopol Charter, Sebastopol Union School District, Twin Hills School District, and West Sonoma County Union High School District.

Rabbitt said communications with the state Office of Emergency Services indicated the county should hear soon from Newsom’s office about a state of emergency and was working on preliminary damage assessments toward that end.

The governor’s proclamation would allow the county to receive state disaster assistance, as well as waive competitive bidding requirements for contracts related to flood work.

The proclamation could additionally communicate the seriousness of the flooding to people who live and work in Sonoma County, Chris Godley, the manager of the Sonoma County Emergency Services Division, said during a Wednesday news conference.

“What we’re looking at is the extraordinary challenge to public safety and civil governance,” Godley said. “That is, is the natural hazard of both localized flooding, the potential for landslides, as well as the Russian River flooding, is that something that we can handle with our day to day resources and processes?”

Staff writers Andrew Beale, Martin Espinoza and Nashelly Chavez contributed to this story.

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

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