Storm drops up to 12 inches of rain on Sonoma County, swamping roads, closing schools

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To see a map of road closures in Sonoma County, click here.

To see a map of power outages in Sonoma County, click here.

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If you have any storm photos you’d like to share, send them to onlineideas@pressdemocrat.com.

The biggest storm of the winter began its slow denouement Thursday in the North Bay, leaving rainfall totals in the double digits in the wettest spots, as well as swamped roads, closed schools, fallen trees and other problems, with still more showers expected into late Sunday night.

By Thursday night, the atmospheric river that made landfall Tuesday had dropped more than 12 inches of rain in the hills west of Healdsburg — as usual, the rainfall leader for the Bay Area — with much of the rest of Sonoma County receiving 5 inches or more.

The heavy runoff closed dozens of roads across the region, including more than 30 in rural Sonoma County on Thursday morning. As the storm began to taper, forecasts that had once envisioned moderate-to-major flooding on the lower Russian River were downgraded, with waters now set to crest early Friday at 36 feet, only about 4 feet over flood levels.

Russian River at Guerneville

Residents in Guerneville, where the Russian River often spills its banks during big storms, expressed relief.

“I just can’t believe it’s not worse,” said Amber Spienza, 27, who with her friend, April Dellinges, was checking on a friend in the Sycamore Court neighborhood of Guerneville on Thursday. “This is nothing. It was way worse in 2017.”

Dellinges, also 27, changed into bathing suit bottoms before wading into muddy water to make sure their friend had safely evacuated. She had and soon the friends were back in their SUV and driving away.

The deluge Wednesday night led to the majority of calls for area firefighters, Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said.

“The crest estimates of the Russian River are usually inflated a bit, so we knew going into this storm that it was probably not going to be as bad as predicted,” he said.

The three-day storm doused Monte Rio, Bodega Bay and Occidental with close to 9 inches of rain. Parts of Healdsburg and Guerneville reported about 7 inches. Santa Rosa and Cloverdale received more than 5 inches and Petaluma, Cotati and Sebastopol got nearly 4 inches.

The timing of the storm evoked comparisons to winters past, including the infamous Valentine’s Day flood of 1986, when the Russian River hit nearly 49 feet in Guerneville, and another in February 1995 that reached 48 feet.

With those in mind, the projected 36-foot crest on Friday just didn’t measure up for longtime residents.

“This weather’s nothing,” said Joel Martin, who has lived along the river since 1973 and is a manager at the True Value Hardware store off River Road. “I don’t think it’s a big deal.”

Even so, flooding hampered traffic Wednesday and Thursday on many key roadways, with the hardest hit areas being Highway 121 through Sonoma Valley and Highway 12 in the same area. Drivers using Highway 116 to connect to Highway 101 in the Petaluma area also saw flooding. Emergency dispatchers reported no major crashes during the course of the storm.

As of 9:30 p.m. Thursday, the slow lane on southbound Highway 101 was closed at Rodeo Drive in Marin County due to a mudslide. CHP Marin said on Twitter there was no estimated time for reopening the lane.

To see a map of road closures in Sonoma County, click here.

To see a map of power outages in Sonoma County, click here.

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If you have any storm photos you’d like to share, send them to onlineideas@pressdemocrat.com.

The onslaught of runoff in Novato Creek breached a levee on Highway 37 in Novato Thursday afternoon, damaging the railroad tracks on SMART’s nearby right of way. CHP and Caltrans were closely watching the water levels, which were raised even by higher by tide rolling in from San Pablo Bay. Around 7:30 p.m. Thursday night, floodwater spilled onto Highway 37, closing the westbound slow lane between Atherton Avenue and Novato Creek in Marin County. CHP Marin reported there was also no estimated time for reopening this lane.

Four school districts — Alexander Valley, Dunham Elementary, Geyersville and Guerneville — were closed on Thursday. All but the Guerneville School District planned to resume classes Friday, according to the Sonoma County Office of Education. And the Monte Rio School District, which held classes Thursday, also decided to close Friday.

Authorities issued a boil-water advisory for drinking water for residents of the Sweetwater Springs Water District, including Guerneville, Rio Nido, Guernewood Park, Vacation Beach, Drake Road and outlying areas.

Sonoma County’s juvenile detention camp in Forestville was evacuated Thursday morning as a precautionary measure, said Briana Khan, a county spokeswoman. About 15 juveniles and two staff members were moved to another site until the storm passes because of flooding around the camp, she said.

“River sites near Guerneville are continuing to rise, but only at minor levels now and will slowly decline starting Friday,” said Scott Rowe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey. “While most of the heavy rain has come and gone, we won’t be able to realize its full impact until next week.”

Low-lying areas of Guerneville, including small parks and picnic areas, were underwater Thursday, but the flood levels were not enough to raise alarms, said Lt. Michael Raasch of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. He dropped by the department’s Guerneville substation early Thursday to provide backup resources if necessary.

Guerneville resident Harold Lackey, coffee in hand, was out for a stroll Thursday with his dogs across the Historic Truss Bridge near downtown.

“I’m not worried at all,” said Lackey, 64. “The river is doing what the river does. Unfortunately, it’s the nature of living in the North Bay.”

The main concern of the sheriff’s office was the risk of falling trees as the ground continues to become more saturated with rain lingering through the weekend.

“With storms like this you can predict a lot, but the thing you can’t predict are the trees,” Raasch said. “When you have this much rain the roots of the redwoods and oaks begin to uproot easily. You just never know.”

The county’s emergency operations center was lightly staffed Thursday as a precaution, but Raasch said the center probably will not see much action. Still, Sonoma County issued an evacuation advisory early Thursday evening for people living on the Russian River floodplain and its tributaries.

Seaman Aaron Delgado at the U.S. Coast Guard station in Bodega Bay said his Thursday morning commute was challenging and that roads in Valley Ford were like rivers.

“The water was moving up past people’s doors and there were so many closures we could all barely get to work this morning,” Delgado said. “It was like rushing water.”

Authorities urged motorists to avoid driving through major stretches of standing water.

Cal Fire dispatchers said they responded to downed power lines and flooding overnight, but no major incidents.

Scattered power outages were reported by PG&E on Thursday morning, with several hundred people near Guerneville without electricity. Most of the power was restored by Thursday around noon.

The National Weather Service said a cold front was set to sweep across the North Bay on Thursday with strong gusts at times, but fade by Friday morning. A flood warning is in place Friday morning for North Bay coastal areas from 5 a.m. until 10 a.m. and a high surf warning is in place from 10 a.m. Friday until 9 p.m. Saturday.

Intermittent showers were expected to hang over the North Bay until late Sunday, but areas should not expect to see more than another inch of rain over the weekend, meteorologist Carolina Walbrun said.

More heavy rainfall is expected Friday night, but it should taper by Saturday afternoon. Weather forecasters say the North Bay should start to dry out Monday.

Staff Writer Andrew Beale contributed to this story.

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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