Storm exits Sonoma County, with rescues, receding floodwaters and road closures in wake

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Storm-weary Sonoma County saw a welcome break in the weather Thursday, with floodwaters receding, thousands of displaced residents awaiting a chance to return home and Gov. Gavin Newsom uncorking much needed financial relief.

Yet even as the Russian River retreated from Wednesday night’s crest, the highest level in more than two decades, murky brown water blanketed vast expanses of the county and continued to make boats a primary means of transportation in Guerneville, Monte Rio and even part of Sebastopol.

The flood’s onslaught drove people from their homes along the Russian River from the county’s north end to the river’s mouth at the Pacific Ocean, damaging about 2,000 structures and inundating dozens of county roads. It made much of human endeavor seem puny by comparison.

From high above, the scenario was stunning, county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said after a helicopter tour with emergency response officials to assess the damage.

“Seeing it from the air, seeing how huge the river was, how tiny the houses were, it really hits you,” she said. “When you see the river like that, it reminds you how small we are, honestly.”

“It’s one of those powerful forces of nature… every once in awhile it reminds us that we don’t have as much control as we think we do,” said Hopkins, who represents the west county area hit hardest by the deluge.

Trees crashed into homes, mudslides blocked roads and first responders using high-water vehicles, boats and helicopters rescued 59 people from the disaster’s grip. By Thursday the worst seemed over.

Call volume to Redcom’s emergency post in Graton dropped off sharply Wednesday night and Thursday, incident commander Spencer Andreis said.

“We’ve had a couple cars stranded in water, rock slides, hazardous conditions, but not anywhere like what we were experiencing,” he said.

Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said Thursday was a quiet day, with no emergency calls. “Just helping people get back into their houses,” he said.

In Guerneville, a virtual island surrounded by floodwater, River Theater owner Jerry Knight surveyed the props, chairs and debris floating in front of the performance stage. He said it was the worst flooding he’d ever experienced.

In Sebastopol, floodwaters poured into The Barlow, the high-end shopping center, causing potentially millions of dollars in damage. Some tenants blamed the site’s owner, Barney Aldridge, who they said failed to adequately notify them of the flood danger and did not raise all the flood gates in time. Aldridge declined to comment.

The tasting room at Gracianna Winery on Westside Road south of Healdsburg was inundated nearly to the ceiling and the wine cellar beneath the estate house was submerged and unreachable, owner Trini Amador III said.

Amador said the flooding was “a major catastrophe” for the family-owned winery located next to the Russian River. The full extent of the loss “is not fully known yet,” he said.

The incessant rainfall came to a halt Thursday for the first extended period since a powerful atmospheric river rolled in Monday and stalled overhead.

A trace of rain was reported by 4 p.m. in Santa Rosa. Venado in the hills west of Healdsburg, typically the wettest spot in the Bay Area, had no rain, the National Weather Service reported.

“That’s really dry, which is fantastic,” meteorologist Brian Garcia said.

But the respite will be brief, as Friday starts off dry, with a quick-hitting storm coming off the ocean Friday night and continuing with showers Saturday in Sonoma County. The county’s lowlands will get a half inch to three-quarters of an inch of rain, with up to an inch in the hills, meteorologist Scott Rowe said.

With the ground super saturated, the new runoff will race into creeks and rivers, but it is not expected to significantly affect receding floodwaters, he said.

Showers are forecast to continue Sunday, tapering off by Monday.

Another potential atmospheric river looms Tuesday, but weather models Thursday had it zeroing in on the area south of Monterey Bay, Rowe said. The North Bay will likely get some rain but how much is uncertain, he said.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said in a tweet Thursday evening that Guerneville will be reopened to residents around noon Friday and the general public will be allowed in Saturday. But authorities warned the town may not reopen “if damage is located and so severe that it presents a danger to the public.”

Sheriff Mark Essick said he understands the frustration of residents who evacuated in response to his order for 3,600 people to get out of harm’s way. No major injuries or deaths have been reported in the flooding.

“It’s kind of like with the October (2017) fires. It’s gradual,” he said of the repopulation. “Once we get a particular area cleared, we start letting people in... We are working as hard as we can.”

County spokeswoman Kris Montgomery said there was no way to tell how many had actually left their homes “because they don’t call and tell us, ‘We’re leaving.’”

Gov. Newsom declared a state of emergency Thursday for five counties including Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake, easing the way to disaster assistance for local residents and governments.

Newsom’s order makes state aid and relief programs available to those who suffer damage from the storm and subsequent flooding, county officials said. It would also waive regulations that could slow response and recovery efforts.

Damage to public facilities and flood response costs was estimated at $25 million and does not include private homes and businesses.

The Russian River crested late Wednesday night at 45.4 feet in Guerneville, the highest level since 1995, claiming the sixth spot in historic Russian River floods. It was far behind the Valentine’s Day 1986 flood that hit 48.6 feet.

Dropping fast, the river was expected to fall below flood stage, 32 feet in Guerneville, before dawn Friday.

Sixty county employees from Permit Sonoma will enter the Russian River area when the water subsides and the roads become passable, checking every flood-affected structure to determine if it’s safe to re-enter, Hopkins said. The county will also begin repairing roads and checking for public safety hazards such as downed power lines.

“It’s a lot of cleanup, and it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be weeks,” Hopkins said.

PG&E reported that about 2,700 customers were without power Thursday night due to flooding and mudslides, with crews making repairs in areas where they could gain access, spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said.

The largest numbers of customers were in Cazadero (970), Forestville (663), Guerneville (376) and Monte Rio (279). PG&E notified 265 homes in Forestville that their gas would be turned on stating Friday. Gas service was shut off Wednesday night as a safety precaution, Contreras said.

The flooded westbound lanes of Highway 37 near Novato remained closed Thursday with no estimated time for reopening, according to Caltrans, but eastbound lanes are open.

The latest closure is the result of another storm-related breach of the levee along Novato Creek on the south side of the road, state Sen. Mike McGuire said.

The levee, which falls in the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit-owned right of way, was previously breached on Feb. 14, resulting in a six-day closure of the westbound route and an estimated $1.8 million short-term repair job that was at least partly undone by this week’s storm.

With about 40 Sonoma County roads closed, drivers have switched to alternate routes, causing congestion in new places. Rural Olivet and Laguna roads are part of a circuitous detour around the Guerneville Road closure to reach Forestville and Sebastopol. Traffic also has been heavy on Highway 116 from Sebastopol to Cotati as the only way to get from the west county to Santa Rosa, with Highway 12 closed just east of Sebastopol.

Schools in four West County districts will remain closed Friday: Guerneville, Monte Rio and Montgomery in Cazadero along with the West Sonoma County Union High School District.

Firefighters early Thursday made a dramatic rescue of a woman found clinging to a tree after her car sunk under about 10 feet of water in west Sonoma County, said Cyndi Foreman, a Rincon Valley and Windsor Fire Protection District spokeswoman.

The driver, a Press Democrat newspaper carrier who is in her 60s, called for help about 3 a.m., saying she had driven into floodwaters, which were filling her car. A swift water rescue team found her hanging onto a tree with water up to her neck.

Staff Writers Martin Espinoza, Kevin Fixler, Randi Rossmann and Peg Melnik contributed to this report.

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