Sonoma Swamped

Dispatches from drowned West County


La Vie la Rose

I spent last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at the Hotel La Rose in Santa Rosa, since I could not get home to Guerneville through the flood waters. I had been in Pennsylvania talking to young writers at Bloomsburg University, and did not realize how isolated my home had become while I was away.

I love the La Rose, having rented a room from them once so I could finish a manuscript and needed a room where I could spread chapters all over the floor. They were happy to give me just that, and this time they welcomed me with a warm, dry room and a short walk to the nearby thrift stores where I bought a clean T-shirt for pajamas and a bathing suit just in case. Didn’t need the bathing suit but the T-shirt lasted for two nights, and I am going to keep it as a memento of the great flood of 2019.—Dorothy Allison, author of ‘Bastard Out of Carolina’

Making a Stand in Guerneville

Tom Lynch had four feet of water in his Guerneville house after the rains and flooding along the Russian River. His wife and his 15-year-old daughter got out of Guerneville and went to somewhat higher ground in Sebastopol. Tom and his mother-in-law stayed at home to brave the extreme weather in a town that was all but cut off for days because of the flooding. While the downstairs of his home was wet, upstairs was dry.

A colorful candidate for county supervisor a few years ago, Lynch has lived in Guerneville since 1980. “I’ve seen floods before,” he says, sounding not one bit intimidated by the Great Flood of 2019. Indeed, it would take a flood of Biblical proportions to dislodge tom Tom Lynch from his Guerneville niche.—Jonah Raskin

Going with the Flow in Forestville

I’m on River Drive in Forestville. We left on Tuesday evening, Feb. 26, in anticipation of the rising water. We knew we would get hit, and prepared by removing everything from the basement, which we had made into a living space for two teens. I assumed we would get four to four-and-a-half-feet of water. I was wrong. The silt line on the house is at about seven and a half feet.

Coming home to River Drive was surreal: A neighbor’s car was turned over, and was washed into the middle of the street by the current. I lost parts of all four sides of fencing, and my yard is full of oddities: a wooden duck, a garden bench that doesn’t belong to me, a brown tattered suitcase, which happens to be partially unzipped and full of clothes. And mud. Slimy stinky mud.

The mess and repair is daunting, but I have a charming river home and I love it. Living on the river is not for everyone, but there’s a state of being that happens out here when the river reminds us that we aren’t in control—a muddy acceptance of our connection to the river and a kinship with neighbors that reminds us we are in this together. River rats in California hillbilly country. I love it.—Angelina Hovan

The Literary View from Monte Rio

Poet Pat Nolan has lived in Monte Rio along the Russian River since 1973. “Right now it’s not a pretty picture here,” he says. Nolan had four feet of water in his studio, where he makes block prints. He knew the flood was coming—he listened to the National Weather Service— and so he and his wife moved everything they could to prevent severe damage. They even took up the carpet.

“Old-timers survive floods better than newcomers,” says the old-timer Nolan. “After the flood of 1995, we had our house raised above the floodplain, so we were in relatively good shape this time. Not so our neighbors. They got seven feet of water in their place.”

The Russian River is now down from what it was, but in Monte Rio, the flooding made a mess. “There’s a lot of mud and silt,” Nolan says. “It covers everything.” When the river peaked and the creek backed up, he and his wife couldn’t leave. Now, they can come and go and reflect on the Great Flood of 2019.—Jonah Raskin

Split Scene in Sebastopol

I heard the rain pouring all night and morning in my Sebastopol neighborhood. When I got up, I was surprised how little standing water there was in my backyard. Love the sandy-loam soil. Gratefully, we were high and dry. It wasn’t until I saw a Facebook post of someone paddling past the Highway 12 Chevron later that morning that I knew things were not going so well across town.

I took my kids down to the Barlow because I knew it was flood-prone. And flood it did. We watched in amazement as kayakers stroked down McKinley Street to the water’s end at Taylor Lane. A Circle of Hands, my daughter’s favorite toy store, was an island. Although it was near noon, Community Market workers appeared to be just erecting their flood barriers in face of the rising tide of flood waters.

“Put down your cell phones and help,” called out one of them to disaster gawkers like me.

It’s bizarre how there can be devastation on one block and normalcy the next block over. It’s like toggling between two worlds. The morning of the flood in Sebastopol had that feeling. People rode bicycles on closed streets, friends chatted with coffee in hand and kids out of school wandered about—while a few feet away businesses and dreams lay under three feet of brown water.—Stett ‘Sebastopol Strong’ Holbrook

Huffman’s Rolling Thunder Tour

It wasn’t raining, pouring or storming, but U.S. Congressman Jared Huffman barnstormed across swaths of Sonoma County that were hardest hit by February’s floods. According to the most recent tally, 2,600 properties were either partially or totally flooded, though no one knows for sure the full extent of the damage or the dollar amount it will take to make the necessary repairs.

At the battered Barlow in Sebastopol, Huffman stopped to chat with John Stewart, who owns and operates Zazu with his wife, Duskie Estes; they’ve made their restaurant a destination for foodies from here and around the country. Zazu is now closed with no opening date on the calendar.

“It’s sad to see the flood damage when you could be serving delicious food,” Huffman said to Stewart, who was helping to clean up the mess. Huffman added, “We’re taking stock and we’re trying to get people help. I’m so sorry.” His words sounded heartfelt.

Stewart explains that it rained so heavily and the floodwaters rose so quickly that nothing could have prevented the damage to his restaurant, not even sandbags.

The Congressman’s day began in Guerneville, where floods are a way of life. Then he was off to Forestville, where he rendezvoused with local residents and with Sonoma County Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. Sebastopol was up next. Flood damage was extensive. The raging waters not only hit the Barlow, but also Park Village, formerly the Mobile Home Park on Highway 12, as well as the Community Center on High Street, which wasn’t high enough to escape the raging waters.

Newly appointed Sebastopol Mayor Neysa Hinton toured the Barlow with Huffman. A third-generation Sonoma County resident, she grew up and came of age with floods.

“We need FEMA funds,” Hinton said. “We’ll have to see if we qualify.” She adds that Huffman’s first-hand experience will enable him to go back to Washington, D.C., and lobby for help.

“We want President Trump to act,” Hinton said. “We hope he’ll act.”

Recognizing the urgency, on Feb. 28, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for all of Sonoma County after the days of heavy rain led to mudslides and flooding along the Russian River and in low-lying areas close to the Laguna de Santa Rosa, the county’s largest watershed and wetland and home to all sorts of flora and fauna.

Hinton has called for a community meeting in Sebastopol on March 13 at 4pm, with the location still to be determined. At the Community Center, the removable floor was saved, but floodwaters damaged the electrical system and the siding. The building is closed for social gatherings until further notice.

Huffman, a Democrat who represents the fourth Congressional district, knows all about the “national emergency” orchestrated by President Trump. Huffman has repeatedly called it a “sham national emergency.” He knows that there’s nothing sham about the emergency here. The congressman is no stranger to Sonoma County’s wild weather. In January 2017, he chose to avoid Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C. Instead, he trekked to Guerneville to support the Russian River cleanup efforts after the flooding at the start of the year. Some things don’t change.

Now, citizens hardest hit by the storms are worried about the cost of repairs and about weather reports that predict more rain in March. But in Forestville, Guerneville and Sebastopol citizens are relieved that Huffman saw the worst of the damage. Will his presence here today bring help from the federal government? There’s hope.—Jonah Raskin

Lookout from
the Laguna

In the four years that Kevin Munroe has been in Sonoma County, the executive director for the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation has seen the region’s 254-square-mile watershed fill, but never quite like last week’s flooding.

“My understanding is the last time the waters of the Laguna flooded to this level was, I think, 2005,” he says. “And my understanding is the rain we received in that 24-hour period between Tuesday and Wednesday [Feb. 26–27] was the most rain that had fallen in this area in a 24-hour period in a hundred years.”

In fact, according to National Weather Service data going back to 1902, it was the rainiest day in Santa Rosa’s history. Without the Laguna’s wetland complex, the water would have risen even higher.

“A large wetland like the Laguna can benefit downstream communities,” says Munroe. “The Laguna can grow to 30,000 acres of wetlands. Think of all that water being slowed down and held before it goes downstream.”

While the flooding in Sebastopol, Monte Rio, Forestville and Guerneville was severe in places, it would have been several times worse if it were not for the Laguna.

Munroe also points out the importance of the annual cycle of flooding for the wetlands. “It’s understandable to think of flooding as an emergency and a crisis, and of course for us living near the river it can be, but from an ecological standpoint, flooding is so important. It recharges the water table and creates habitat for wetland creatures.”

For their part, the foundation’s staff was out in kayaks the day after the heavy rains to monitor the situation in real time, posting photos and videos on social media for the public to see. “We tried to be a source of information and education,” says Munroe.

As the water levels go down, Munroe adds that there are three simple things that individuals can do throughout the year and during floods to help the wetlands, including picking up trash before it flows downstream, staying conscious about any chemicals or fertilizers being used on personal property and using native plants in gardening.

“Those native plants will do a better job of providing wildlife habitat and holding the soil than invasive exotic plants,” says Munroe. “The more native plants you have on your property or in your neighborhood, that’s going to help wildlife recover from a flood.”—Charlie Swanson



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