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Guerneville mops up after flood damage

by Charlie Wagner

Stumptown Nursery on River Road east of downtown Guerneville sits on water last Friday after suffering severe damage from the flood. Photo: Charlie Wagner
Stumptown Nursery on River Road east of downtown Guerneville sits on water last Friday after suffering severe damage from the flood. Photo: Charlie Wagner  

Guerneville residents and businesses are mopping up after one of the worst floods in years.

Meanwhile, reservations at some popular resorts have been canceled until late spring.
Traffic began flowing through the recovering resort town beginning late last week, after a county evacuation order was lifted by local officials once the river receded back below flood stage (32 feet).

Almost six inches of rain fell in Guerneville beginning around 4 p.m. February 25 and into the following day, signaling to residents that this was going to be more destructive than the flood two weeks earlier. The rain was caused by an atmospheric river that stalled over the North Bay, instead of moving through the area as storms usually do.

The February 14 flood, nicknamed by locals the Valentine's Day flood, was forecast to reach 46 feet but actually reached 38.5 feet and damaged few structures severely.

In contrast, last week's flood reached 45.5 feet, caused damage throughout the Bay Area, and resulted in Governor Gavin Newsom declaring a state of emergency in five counties February 28.

Most of the flooding was along the Russian River and its tributaries. Guerneville, Forestville, and Monte Rio were especially hard hit. As of March 2, Sonoma County's Emergency Response Office had estimated $155 million in damages, impacting 578 commercial properties and 1,900 homes, with major damage to 1,750. No injuries or deaths were reported, however, in Sonoma County.

Federal grants have helped residents raise over 300 houses and, since 1995, the county has issued over 700 permits in all for lifting houses. But as West County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins noted, some of the most affordable housing is in the floodplain.

Guerneville's naturally elevated Main Street stayed mostly dry, as did the businesses on either side of the street. While some shops on the river side of Main took in small amounts of water, damaging their floors, none reported any loss of merchandise or supplies. Safeway was not flooded, though the parking lot took on water.

But just a block away, the story was visibly different.

Berlin Fisher, 52, is a gay man and the owner of West Sonoma Style Bar on Third Street, a mere block inland from Main. His shop has special importance for him because, he said, "I built the salon myself."

He opened in January 2016 and witnessed his first flood that same month. That flood reached only 39 feet, however, and his business escaped the high water.

Last week he was not as fortunate.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website (www.cnrfc.noaa.gov) maintains a website that forecasts the level of the Russian River at Guerneville, and it is continuously updated.

When Fisher came to work last Tuesday and saw the NOAA forecast had zoomed into the danger zone, he asked his landlord what he should do. "He said move everything out," Fisher recalled, and his landlord offered him the use of vacant space on the second floor of his building.

"We moved everything not attached upstairs," he said.

That preparation "added a little bit of normalcy to what I'm going through," he added.

He was working at his shop Tuesday night when a sheriff's deputy showed up and asked him to evacuate, so he returned to his house in Monte Rio and was trapped for four days, all the time wondering what he would find when he returned.

When friends heard his shop went underwater and his insurance did not cover water coming from the exterior, they started a GoFundMe campaign. "The community was extremely supportive," Fisher said.

After donations exceeded his GoFundMe goal, he used the surplus to help the Higher Ground coffee house next door, which was also devastated.

Fisher has reopened the Style Bar on the second floor while cleanup continues downstairs. On Saturday he said, "I've been going from styling hair to throwing out garbage all day."

R3 takes on water
A block farther inland the elevation drops lower and the area floods more, mostly due to the backup of Fife's Creek when it can no longer empty into the Russian River. The R3 Hotel, Restaurant and Bar is located on Fourth Street, at the edge of that area of Guerneville.

That is the area most photographed when the Russian River floods, and it contains much of downtown's more affordable housing, which was heavily impacted.

"We took on nine feet of water and it will be a full gut job for us," said gay R3 general manager Jeff Bridges. "About 10 employees lost their housing. Three are staying with me." Bridges is also the vice president of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce.

"We've hired a general contractor, have a crew in place, and lots of people volunteering their time," he said, adding they're expected to start gutting interiors this week.

"We have a lot of storage space above where the flood reached, on the second floor of the resort," he said.

Bridges, 58, has used his relocated office on the upper floor to address multiple problems. "Customers can still reserve online, but we've canceled all reservations until May 1."

As he stood next to the R3's often-photographed, muddy, and debris-filled swimming pool, Bridges expressed cautious optimism about the resort's future.

"We are aiming to be open between May 1 and May 10, about 10 weeks from now," he said. "Come back and take pictures as we rebuild."

Crista Luedtke, 45, is in the rare position of having businesses that were both spared and hit by the flood. She is the lesbian owner of boon eat + drink on Main Street, boon hotel + spa on Armstrong Woods Road, and a partner in El Barrio Bar, also on Main Street. She was a co-founder of Big Bottom Market on Main Street, which sells her Oprah Winfrey-recommended Big Bottom biscuits.

Luedtke has been credited with helping reenergize downtown Guerneville since she opened her restaurant in 2009. Her businesses are LGBTQ-friendly but aim for a diverse clientele.

"Boon's section of Main goes under at 47 or 48 feet," Luedtke pointed out. "Obviously, it was touch and go, but more or less the whole block was spared." Still, she said she and her staff "put everything we could on a higher level."

Her hotel, however, is at a lower elevation.

"My hotel took on 30 inches or more, but the water had to rise about three or four feet more before it would get into the rooms," she said.

The hotel floods from two nearby creeks, not the river. Because the river is flowing so high, the creeks can't empty.

"We have flooded before when the river has not," Luedtke said.

But the in-ground resort pool has a unique problem, she explained. The high winter water table means they cannot empty the pool if mud gets in it, because the pool might pop out of the ground.

So she decided to try to keep the mud out and explained what they did. "I filled the pool up to the coping, then covered it with Visqueen [polyethylene plastic sheeting] and sandbagged the perimeter; after the water went down, we found about 10 inches of silt on top; we were able to power wash and sweep it off completely."

When they were done, Luedtke said, "We removed the cover and found the water untouched."

There was plenty of other cleaning to do. "As soon as we could get back into the property, we were ready with a crew of 10," she said.

"We had a guest checking in Friday night," Luedtke said, "and we told him to come up. By the time he arrived, the hot tub had been drained, cleaned, and refilled."

Surprised
This flood caught a lot of people by surprise. According to NOAA, the river last week took only 27 hours to rise from 32 feet to its crest at 45.5 feet.

Luedtke was returning from a trip and heard on Monday as she was flying back that the river was going to 37 feet, then when she landed on Tuesday, she heard going to 48 feet or higher.

"River Road was already closing," she said. "I chose to stay not at home so I could get into my businesses even if roads were closed."

Dave Davis and his husband, Ken Sansone, live above Drake Road, which crosses one of the first areas to flood. Davis remembered one eerie sight was watching water move up Drake Road as they retreated to higher ground.

On Friday, the West County Health Center's main clinic and homeless service center were reopened, as residents started piling their soggy and destroyed possessions by the curb.

"The Valentine's Day Flood threw everyone off with what to expect with this flood," Fisher said, a sentiment expressed by many in Guerneville.

If some businesses are not open yet, Luedtke said, "Everyone is getting at it right away, and everybody is super-motivated to get moving."

By Saturday night, supporting Luedtke's statement, most restaurants and bars on Main Street in Guerneville were open and humming, as was Chile Pies and Nimble and Finn's ice cream in the historic Guerneville Bank Club.

"There will be many, many heroes in Guerneville's recovery," Fisher said.

Luedtke had a similar message. "Everyone tries to help," she said. "That's what I love about living here."

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