Evacuations Lifted for Flooded California Wine Country Towns

Residents awoke Thursday to sunshine and began assessing the damage while the water started receding

Authorities in Northern California have reopened the roads into two towns cut off for days by a rain-swollen river and residents and work crews have started cleaning up the muck that flooding left behind.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office said in a statement Friday it lifted evacuation orders issued for about 3,500 people, allowing residents of Guerneville and Monte Rio who left to return home.

The statement urges people to be careful because crews are still clearing roads of debris.

Along the main road in Guerneville, residents and business owners are inspecting muddy restaurants, hardware stores and homes inundated when the Russian River broke its banks Wednesday.

On Wednesday, television news footage showed muddy brown water nearly swallowing his ground-level unit and much of the tiny town of Guerneville, part of Sonoma County's famed wine country and a popular tourist destination.

Residents awoke Thursday to sunshine and began assessing the damage while the water started receding. Tom Orr, 48, was among those still unable to get into his house after the rain-swollen Russian River reached nearly 46 feet Wednesday night, its highest level in more than 20 years.

"I feel so helpless just sitting here and waiting before I can go back and start salvaging whatever I can," Orr said in text messages to The Associated Press before preparing for a friend to take him by canoe to work at the Main Street Bistro, one of the few places in town that did not flood.

Sonoma County officials said they expected the communities of Guerneville and Monte Rio to be accessible by car Friday. The two-day storm rendered the towns reachable only by boat on Wednesday.

One National Weather Service station measured 20 inches of rain in 48 hours.

Lifelong Guerneville resident Cynthia Bush, who lives in an elevated home, was one of the people who decided not to evacuate. "Even in the other floods we stayed here. We pulled our trailer in the backroad and stayed in the trailer," Bush said.

"It’s just a river. When you live on a river all your life. You just learn to go with flow," she continued.

But some locals and business owners are frustruated by the constant flooding. 

Michael Hagan, an owner of a Guerneville auto shop, said his business got flood twice in one year. "That means you put all your money from the flood into it and you lose every dime you’ve ever had," Hagan said.

"Every business in this town just scratches by anyway. Everybody in this town goes to Santa Rosa to spend their money anyway. How do you recover when people don’t even recognize you’re back in business?" Hagan continued.

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Sonoma County Thursday, as well as in counties of Amador, Glenn, Lake and Mendocino, in response to flooding, mudslides and storm damages

While no flood-related serious injuries or deaths were reported in Sonoma County, a man about 150 miles to the north in Ferndale died trying to reach three children.

The unidentified man was trying to walk from a barn to his home through up to 5 feet of water Wednesday evening when he was carried away by the fast-moving current, said Samantha Karges, a spokeswoman with the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office.

Two adults and a child tried to rescue the man, but their tractor stalled in the water. Deputies in a boat then rescued them and the three children from the home, Karges said.

The missing man's body was found Thursday morning. He was the father of a 12-year-old trapped in the home with two children under 4, Karges said. She was not sure if all three children were related. The low-lying rural area about 215 miles north of San Francisco is home to many dairy farms and flooded when the Eel River went over its banks.

In Sonoma County, Guerneville and Monte Rio remained cut off by floodwaters that swamped the communities. Water was chest-high in some places, several feet in others.

In downtown Guerneville, some residents stood on the roofs of their flooded two-story houses, watching neighbors and others paddling kayaks, canoes and rowboats down watery streets. Oversized National Guard truck occasionally sloshed by.

Drone video showed a sign reading "Monte Rio awaits your return" hanging over muddy water that hid any trace of the road beneath.

In Sonoma County, Sheriff Mark Essick said Thursday that three women had to be rescued. Two were on a boat without paddles, and one was rescued from a tree after driving her car into floodwaters, he said.

About 2,000 homes, businesses and other structures were flooded by water up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) deep. About 3,500 people were under evacuation orders.

In addition, two wastewater treatment plants were not working, leading to concerns about sewage spills, said Briana Khan, a Sonoma County spokeswoman.

Guerneville, a town of 4,500, is a former logging community now popular with day-tripping tourists, including gays and lesbians who flock to the town's resorts and fine restaurants. Throughout the storm, residents with canoes and kayaks gave rides to neighbors and documented the rising water with photos posted to social media.

Locals are accustomed to the Russian River flooding in rainy weather, but not like this.

In Monte Rio, 28-year-old Michael Super watched helplessly as water seeped in from five different entry points, including doors and walls. He grabbed the cat and dog and found higher ground.

He said the landlord has insurance, but the silt and dirty water are a mess to clean.

"A lot of the furniture will have to go into the dump," he said. "We've seen oil and gas sheens and alcohol bottles so the water is unsafe."

Orr moved to Guerneville about five years ago, driven out of San Francisco by rising costs. He helped create a dinner theater show at a local restaurant. It didn't work out, but he stayed on, unable to move back to the city.

He started moving items out of his house Tuesday afternoon, humming a version of "My Funny Valentine" called "My Floody Valentine" to keep up his spirits. By 10 p.m., the water was too high for him to get inside.

He doesn't have insurance, but the items he hopes survive are not easily replaceable: computers, floppy disks and videotapes containing decades of essays, performances, ideas for musicals and "sassy satirical parodies of Broadway show tunes."

He's a cabaret performer accustomed to cracking jokes to keep the grief at bay.

"This is the most serious thing that's ever happened to me, but I don't know the punchline," he said. "For now, I'm trying to do my best to keep everybody laughing."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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