West County Health Services grapples with physical, mental toll of Guerneville flood

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Now that the floodwaters have receded, a new challenge faces one of the largest providers of health care services along the Russian River.

West County Health Centers, which operates clinics in Guerneville, Occidental, Sebastopol and Forestville, is helping its patients recover from the physical and mental toll left by the region’s worst flood in two decades.

The clinic in Guerneville suffered $200,000 in missed appointments, a damaged furnace and cleanup costs, said Jennifer Neeley, associate director of development for West County Health Centers. The nonprofit has been operating in the county for over 40 years, offering services to everyone regardless of medical coverage.

Although the clinic was without power for several days during the storm, it has since reopened and is seeing patients, Neeley said.

“People have been really responsive to our efforts to keep supporting flood victims and our cleanup efforts,” she said.

A new interactive map allowed clinicians to see how many patients were living in flooded areas and helped them contact the ones who needed immediate help.

“The map gives us an overview of who may be living in the most impacted areas,” said Neeley of the map, which tracked nearly 2,000 patients during the storm.

Neeley’s team called almost every patient living in a flood zone once the power was restored to see if they needed anything, she said.

“Our patients were just so happy to know that someone was out there caring about them, even if they were trapped by the floods,” Neeley said. “That had a major positive impact.”

Initially, the clinics saw an influx of patients suffering from head wounds, infected cuts and stomach bugs caused by exposure to contaminated water. Now, the clinics’ efforts are shifting to prepare for a wave of people seeking mental health services.

“The biggest part we have learned to focus on is the mental health component, which sometimes we do not see those effects until weeks after a disaster,” Neeley said. “We are preparing for that now that the immediate injuries are no longer what we’re regularly treating.”

An increase in donations by locals has also enabled clinicians to work with patients in their network who are lacking day-to-day necessities like access to transportation or food, she said.

One such donation from a local businessman has helped the West County Health Centers, its Patient Hardship Fund and Russian River Alliance provide that type of additional support.

“I was amazed at how many people that are not even from here who donated to our cause in supporting the community after the floods,” said Chuck Ramsey, president of the Russian River Alliance.

Each of the three beneficiaries received $5,000 toward recovery efforts. In total, the $15,000 grant was gifted by Kirk Lok, who owns a Quality Inn in Petaluma and a Fairfield Inn and Suites in Sebastopol.

“We are part of the community, so the sooner the Russian River can get back to business the better it is for everyone,” Lok said.

The flood that swept over the county last month reportedly caused an estimated $155 million in damage to homes, businesses, roads and other public infrastructure. Around 1,900 homes were affected and 578 commercial buildings and businesses were also damaged, according to a county report.

Some parts of the county, like Cazadero, a town northwest of Guerneville, were cut off for days by flood waters without power, clean drinking water and cellphone service. A state of emergency was also issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom after the damage was assessed, ensuring additional resources were made available to flood victims.

As a result of the donation from Lok, $7,500 in gift cards have been handed out to people with little to nothing left after the floods, Ramsey said.

But mental health is still a huge concern for Neeley. People who may have already been struggling before the floods will have more to deal with now, she said.

“A lot of people are already going to the food banks, and that is increasing,” Neeley said. “It helps that the sun is shining but we expect to see people needing tools to help them out since natural disasters take a huge mental toll.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com.

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