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Sebastopol flood swamped The Barlow’s plans, caught most by surprise

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Save the date

Barlow tenants are hosting a block party benefit on Saturday, May 11 to celebrate their recovery and show off their restored spaces.

The festival will include music, food and a beer garden, as well as open doors at many shops, restaurants, breweries, tasting rooms and pop-ups, said organizer Gia Baiocchi, owner of The Nectary Juice and Smoothie Bar.

Baiocchi said it will be an opportunity for those who are finally back in business – and even those who aren’t – to practice the craft that fills their hearts, whatever it is.

“It’s going to feel really good to kind of open our community back up and let everybody know that we’re back open,” she said.

The event runs from noon to 10 p.m.

It was about 2 a.m. on Feb. 27 when Carlos Rosas and his wife drove north from his home in Petaluma to check on Barrio, his Mexican restaurant at The Barlow in Sebastopol.

He had closed up four hours early the night before, concerned about the heavy rain and the safety of his staff.

The roads were covered in runoff in the pre-dawn dark, but the restaurant “is my place,” said Rosas. “It’s everything I have. ...That’s the reason I came.”

The couple were among the first to confront an overwhelming, nearly unrecognizable scene.

A handful of soaked workers, including Barlow staff and a few hired laborers, were wading through the water trying to install stackable aluminum beams across the entryways to the buildings hoping to keep them dry.

But there was no power, and there were few people to tackle the huge task, Rosas said. And even though they appeared to know what they were doing, they were outmatched by the swiftly rising water from the nearby Laguna de Santa Rosa. When he and his wife arrived, the floodwaters were just beginning to approach their restaurant’s entrance.

“It was crazy,” said Rosas, 39. “Moving things, honestly, I can’t remember. It was so fast. And it was scary, to see these things taking place.”

The multi-day deluge had by that point swamped much of Sonoma County and unleashed floodwaters across the North Bay. The Russian River rose to its highest level since 1995, causing extensive damage, particularly along the lower river.

But the flooding that crested at The Barlow on Feb. 27 was unique. Extensive planning and investment in flood protection systems were meant to protect the $32 million outdoor market district during high-water events.

The worst of the destruction occurred after tenants on Feb. 26 said they were assured by Barlow managers through email and other notifications that the situation was under control.

A day later, it clearly was not. Many found themselves slogging through their shops in muddy knee- or waist-high floodwaters desperately trying to install their own barriers or salvage merchandise from stores already in ruin.

Community Market General Manager Mel Minton, whose large store is on a relatively high part of the property, opened for business briefly on Feb. 27 before closing and setting her staff to flood preparations. When she went looking for the barriers for her store’s 16 doors so her employees could install them themselves, she learned they were under water in a low-lying area of the complex

“I was like, ‘Bummer. That’s that,’ ” Minton said, frustration still evident in her voice.

“I just don’t think the trigger was pulled early enough when we all knew what was going to happen,” Minton said.

Sebastopol City Attorney Larry McLaughlin, who doubles as city manager, has ordered a complete review of what happened at The Barlow. But the city has few details so far, in large part because the focus has been on permits and inspections needed to get the businesses back open.

But The Barlow has a contract with the city that requires it to properly execute its flood plan, McLaughlin said, and it appears from tenant reports and abundant circumstantial evidence that it came nowhere near doing that, he said.

Save the date

Barlow tenants are hosting a block party benefit on Saturday, May 11 to celebrate their recovery and show off their restored spaces.

The festival will include music, food and a beer garden, as well as open doors at many shops, restaurants, breweries, tasting rooms and pop-ups, said organizer Gia Baiocchi, owner of The Nectary Juice and Smoothie Bar.

Baiocchi said it will be an opportunity for those who are finally back in business – and even those who aren’t – to practice the craft that fills their hearts, whatever it is.

“It’s going to feel really good to kind of open our community back up and let everybody know that we’re back open,” she said.

The event runs from noon to 10 p.m.

Laborers hired to help deploy some of the flood measures showed up two days after the crest, asking directions to The Barlow office, McLaughlin said.

Yet Aldridge produced emails that he said demonstrated his team was closely watching water levels and forecasts. They were working to stage some equipment and put day laborers on standby to install flood barriers, according to emails from Barlow's facilities manager Brian Perry.

Aldridge was monitoring the situation from the East Coast on Feb. 26, a Tuesday, before flying home on the 27th. He said his managers were ready to take action when water levels in the Laguna reached a pre-determined point, 69 feet. That level was reached shortly before 11:30 p.m. Tuesday.

He acknowledges now that was too late.

“Thank God, nobody got seriously hurt putting in those locks in all that fast-moving water,” Aldridge said. “Our team, our Barlow staff, every one of them was out there the entire night in that rain, and when I came back the next day around noon from the East Coast, I found half of them in a hypothermic state.”

City officials say no reason existed for The Barlow managers to have waited as long as they did. Every forecast and gauge reading leading up to the worst of the flooding invited action sooner, they said.

On the eve of the flood, Perry and Glenn Schainblatt, the city’s flood manager, were corresponding about flood preparations at The Barlow.

Emails including them, obtained from the city and shared by The Barlow, show Perry knew the rate of rise on the Laguna was much faster on Feb. 26 than an earlier storm the same month.

Schainblatt notified him in an email around noon Feb. 26 that evacuation orders had been issued on the lower Russian River. He noted that the forecast 46-foot crest had, in 1995, brought 4-foot floods to the Morris Street area that is now part of The Barlow.

That same afternoon, flood preparations were in full gear elsewhere across the city.

At Village Park, the converted mobile home property that houses formerly homeless and low-income people, workers began evacuating recreational vehicles around 2 p.m. in the afternoon.

North of The Barlow, Sebastopol Community Cultural Center volunteers began at noon to clear all belongings from city-owned building: tables, chairs, gym mats, pingpong tables, office supplies, even the puzzle-like floor put in after the center last flooded in 1995, Executive Director Cordelia Holst said.

“We could see the water rising up out of our back window,” she said.

With water coming up on the road, patrol officers had, by 5 p.m., walked door to door on Morris Street advising businesses and homeless people sleeping in RVs to vacate, Police Chief James Conner told city officials via email. An emergency shelter was established at the local veterans hall by 5:30 p.m.

At The Barlow, shop owners were closing up early. Like Rosas, many sent employees home out of concern for their safety.

Jennifer Hirshfield, artist and owner of Gallery 300, left town about 6:30 p.m. to return to her house in Rincon Valley. The drive would take her past the rising waters of the Laguna as she headed out on Highway 12. Before that though, she stopped at Community Market and picked up some groceries and chocolates.

“I ate them the whole way home because I was so stressed,” she said of the sweets. “Now I think, ‘Why didn’t I come back and check?’ ”

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

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