Huge cleanup awaits along Russian River as high toll of flooding emerges

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GUERNEVILLE — Russian River floodwaters receded from all but the lowest-lying areas Friday, pulling the river’s watery curtain out of homes and away from most surface streets, giving residents and merchants a clearer look at the extensive damage and sprawling cleanup to come.

Norma Pichardo, 38, climbed the mud-slickened spiral staircase leading to her family’s second-floor apartment on Sycamore Court. Across the courtyard, the torrent of runoff seemed to have moved through the first floor garage of Fife Creek Commons without causing major damage. Not so among about a half-dozen nearby homes like hers clustered on lower land.

Pichardo unlocked the door and found her home of 10 years upended, belongings tossed about as if by intruders. A shelf lay on its side in the middle of the kitchen. Chairs were toppled, soaked clothes were everywhere. All that stood or sat below waist level was covered in a film of mud.

Pichardo took a garbage bag out of her pocket and began filling it with pictures hanging on the wall: One child’s soccer team portrait; another’s Guerneville School class picture; smiling faces of her three kids in homemade Christmas frames.

“It’s their home,” Pichardo said, full of emotion.

The Russian River dropped below the 32-foot flood level after 11 a.m. Friday, making roads that had become waterways passable again. Authorities lifted roadblocks for residents and business people just after noon, and for the first time in days people who evacuated, as well as those who rode out the storm in their houses, surveyed communities that had not seen this scale of disaster in a quarter century.

Russian River at Guerneville

The floodwaters caused nearly $23 million in damage to public infrastructure, according to initial estimates. Sonoma County has already spent $2.2 million in its response, including fire and law enforcement costs. Private losses haven’t been totaled, but The Barlow, an upscale Sebastopol shopping district near the swollen Laguna de Santa Rosa, alone sustained an estimated $6 million in flood damage.

About 2,600 structures, including homes and businesses, have been impacted, according to the latest county estimate. Many river homes are built on top of garages, sparing living quarters from flood damage. A fuller account of the destruction, assisted by GIS mapping, will take shape over the coming weeks, authorities said.

Already, the questions are pouring in from affected residents, said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district encompasses the hardest hit areas. “There’s a lot of concerns about the health impacts of the water, how to reduce the chance of mold,” she said. “People want to know what to do with propane tanks in their yards.”

County officials will hold a public meeting from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at El Molino High School in Forestville to address cleanup concerns.

Nearly 1,500 PG&E customers remained without power Friday, with the greatest number, nearly 1,000, in Cazadero. Crews hoped to restore power to most by midnight. Gas service had been shut off to 265 homes in Forestvile and technicians began restoring it Friday.

Craig Weynick, 66, had been holed up in his Forestville home without electricity for days. Friday afternoon, he walked house-to-house, checking on neighbors and looking for his garbage cans.

“Get that mud out of there and bring in the dehumidifiers,” he called to a neighbor.

Business that could reopen did so Friday, and Guerneville’s Main Street was abuzz with activity.

At the counter inside Pat’s Restaurant, Mick Stahl commiserated with friends over a noontime beer. The floodwater severely damaged Stahl’s house in town and his cabinet business on River Road.

It’ll be weeks if not months of cleanup. He’s been staying with a Russian River Chamber of Commerce member who opened his home to anyone who needed it.

“These things happen,” said Stahl, 40. “This community — we will all stick together.”

Andy Breffitt, 66, ducked his head into Higher Ground Organic Espresso on Third Street, where by mid morning cafe owner Emilie Navarro had cleared the mud from her tile floor.

“You’ve been initiated,” said Breffitt, an auto mechanic whose family has roots here dating back 125 years.

“I was making coffee as I was pulling art off the walls,” Navarro, 33, recalled of the storm’s first punch Tuesday.

Two doors down, Berlin Fisher, 52, of Monte Rio had hired several workers to rip out the sodden dry wall of his salon, which he planned to temporarily move to the second floor.

Outside, people were power washing driveways and hauling waterlogged furniture from homes and garages.

The economic toll for this community reliant on tourism is sure to be staggering.

Karen O’Brien Inn, owner of Inn on the Russian River in Monte Rio, fought back tears as she met over eggs and toast with Jennifer Neeley, associate director of development for the West County Health Center.

O’Brien had just surveyed the flood’s damage and she was shaken. Eight out of 11 cabins at her resort were full of mud and muck. It covered the furniture, the linens, the walls, everything. The sight was hard to take.

“It feels like communal grief,” O’Brien said. “The town may not get back up on its feet until April.”

The West County Health Center’s main clinic and its homeless services center were open Friday, and staff were calling patients to let them know they could come in, Neeley said.

Using patient data and flood maps, they estimate 1,800 patients were affected by the disaster. Anyone who walks in needing help will be seen, Neely said.

“I’m sure lots of people lost their medication,” she said.

County building inspectors with clipboards and neon vests fanned out along the lower river Friday, going structure-to-structure, marking most as safe to inhabit, but limiting or prohibiting entry to others.

Debris was strewn about the landscape. Fences that held through the storm became screens, trapping yard chairs, plastic tubs and 50 gallon barrels. A pile of massive redwood logs was lodged into a house. A canoe was suspended on a fence and tree.

Contractor Maury Dance was taking a lunch break at a property on Riverlands Road where he was washing the mud from several basements. “It’s twice as hard to clean when it’s dry,” said Dance, 70, of Occidental.

In Monte Rio, Sarah Fisher took a smoke break outside River Auto Parts where she and others spent the day sweeping out water. Fisher, 24, had been trapped for two days in the second-story Guerneville home she shares with her boyfriend and his family. Like many, their living quarters were spared, but a workshop full of tools was lost.

About 10 miles upstream in Forestville, near the Hacienda Bridge, the river’s flow was so strong it pushed a washing machine out of a cabin and deposited two hulking sections of redwood fence onto Igor Rozov’s driveway.

Inside, a thick film of sludge covered the floor. His beds were askew, the mattresses thrown about. His piano had been driven mercilessly to the ground.

“I had prepared myself mentally, but it’s devastating,” Rozov said.

Untouched were his copper kitchen wares, a long row of antique bells hanging from a door and a shelf of ebony wood sculptures. Rozov is insured and said he’s determined to rebuild his “slice of heaven.” But this time it will be many feet higher.

“I don’t get depressed easily,” he said. “There will be a bright spot.”

Staff Writers Andrew Beale and Nashelly Chavez contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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