Guerneville residents begin to exhale after a week of more dire flood warnings

Guerneville residents begin to exhale after a week of more dire flood warnings

GUERNEVILLE — The weeklong wait for the lower Russian River to spill its banks was set to end late Monday, as floodwaters were expected to crest overnight just above the 32-foot flood stage in town.

At times since the first in a parade of atmospheric river storms struck around the New Year’s holiday, the forecast called for much worse.

So it’s been a week of preparation here, even as residents endured dangerous winds that toppled perhaps thousands of trees and caused widespread power failures.

Top of mind was the memory of past floods, including the devastating 2019 disaster, when floodwaters topped 45 feet in town, unleashing more than $155 million in damage across western Sonoma County.

Nothing of that order was on tap Monday, when amid sunny skies, some local residents who strolled down to Johnson’s Beach actually wondered if the river level was receding.

It was still rising, and by 3 pm had reached 30 feet. It was set to reach as high as 32.1 feet by 1 a.m. Tuesdayfed by streams and high-elevation runoff all the way up into Mendocino County.

Chris and Leslie Hofelich, 27-year-old residents of Monte Rio, had placed signs alerting motorists to the flooded road in front of their Monte Cristo Avenue home.

It helped keep local 4×4 drivers out enjoying the flooded roadways from speeding through and sending waves into their garage, the Hofelichs said.

The river needs to rise to 42 feet for their first floor to flood, Leslie Hofelich said, describing her and her husband as proud “river rats” for whom the swollen winter river was just a part of life.

Forecasts accompanying the series of storms that began last week initially worried them, but the Hofelichs weren’t concerned Monday. If fast to rise, the Russian is also fast to recede, Leslie said.

“Give the river 12 hours and it can make a big difference,” she said. They have not evacuated for fire nor flood, Chris Hofelich said. Equipped with a generator and gas appliances, “we’re pretty good at this stuff,” he said.

Still, with saturated soils and floodplains already under water, officials worried that the worst was yet to come this winter — from another storm that has yet to appear in any model of the National Weather Service.

“We got a lot of people in low areas to evacuate, I’m really worried they won’t go next time,” county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said Monday, standing in the parking lot of the Bank of America building where the county had set up a community support center.

Hopkins, wearing rubber wading boots, said coastal communities were hit hardest by the storms’ powerful winds, which brought down countless trees and knocked out power lines. In many parts of the west county, residents continue to be without power.

Margo Fontes, a Rio Nido resident of 20 years, said she still hasn’t gotten power to her Rio Nido Road home. Montes said she’s been cooking on a small propane grill and has a gas insert for her fire place.

“This is how I go to bed,” she said, wearing pants and a black, puffy winter jacket. “I go to bed fully dressed, my husband, too.”

On Monday, Fontes visited other Rio Nido residents, at Sunrise Garden, a volunteer garden along Rio Nido Road. Fontes and others said several Rio Nido residents who live in low-lying areas had already evacuated.

Throughout town, water courses down streets, diches and drains, making its way to the river.

Moire Martin, 70, also of Rio Nido, said she and other residents are doing what they can to keep storm drains clear of debris. Streams and creeks sometimes run under houses and yards, Martin said.

“If a clog happens, then flooding will occur in neighborhoods with higher elevations,” Martin said.

Dutch Bill Creek, a small, forested tributary of the Russian River, held a thundering current in the hills and had flooded its banks in Monte Rio, closer to the coast. Flooding and a small landslide had closed a stretch of Old Bohemian Highway but the main road into Monte Rio was open.

Water surrounded the base of several multistory homes along the old highway. No one appeared to be home Monday afternoon.

At the parking lot off the Monte Rio Bridge, a popular summer swimming destination, water had risen to cover a boat ramp and the trunks of some trees but had not flooded the lot. A young man baited a fishing rod as he prepared to cast into the swollen river.

With the river in Guerneville cresting at just above flood level, Sonoma County Fire District spokeswoman Karen Hancock described the results as mostly “nuisance flooding.”

Hancock said her biggest concern for the incoming storm overnight was the formation of convection cell thunderstorms that have the potential to drop a large amount of rain over a concentrated area in a short period.

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