Floods Take a Psychological Toll : Victims' Lives Centered Around Storms and Cleaning Up

When Frances Bowman woke to heavy rain at 3:30 a.m. recently, she began the drill she has learned so well during three floods and countless evacuations of her home within the last five years.

The curly-haired, 5-foot housewife told her husband to get dressed and go look at the Petaluma River behind their four-bedroom house.

When Jim Bowman returned and reported that the muddy river was rising fast, she began lifting important papers to high shelves and wrapping plastic bags around clothes. Then she paced, wondering whether she, her husband and her son Michael, 17, should flee.

Although the river subsided, Frances and Jim Bowman felt tired and edgy the next morning, she said. They knew they were better off than the morning of Feb. 14, when 18 inches of water covered their floor during massive Northern California floods. And they felt decidedly luckier than they did the first time they were deluged, in January, 1982, when 5 1/2 feet of water lapped at the top of their living room windows.

Still, Frances Bowman, 47, said worrying about floods now prevents her from sleeping during the rain. And the constant threat of flooding to their home has also hurt her relationship with her husband.

" . . . We don't have any enjoyable times," she said. "It's either talking about this damn river . . . or how we're going to get out of here (move), or where are we going to get the money for (repairs). Our whole life is centered around this."

About 15 miles northwest, in the tree-lined hills of Forestville, Anne Fox, 33, said she has suffered a similar reaction to a flood-induced mud slide at her new home.

Difficulty Sleeping

Four weeks after the Feb. 17 slide knocked in her kitchen wall, severed her deck and washed two cars down a hill to destruction, she said the rain frightens her and that she, too, has difficulty sleeping.

Her machinist husband, Rob, 34, contemplating the two-story, redwood home he spent four years building, said he didn't know if they could stay there much longer "unless someone can make us feel awfully secure that nothing can happen again."

The floods affecting the families devastated much of Northern California in February and early March. A state agency reported that rains and rampaging rivers killed 12 people, destroyed 1,380 homes and caused an estimated $374 million in damage.

Gov. George Deukmejian signed a $115-million relief bill to aid the victims and said that President Reagan declared residents of 33 counties eligible for federal temporary housing, low-interest loans and individual and family grants.

In the month following the destruction, however, the Bowmans and Foxes still are waiting to hear from government, insurance and banking representatives to learn what aid they might qualify for.

The Bowmans are anticipating an insurance adjuster's settlement proposal, while the uninsured Fox family was hoping for a quick decision by their bank on a plan to delay mortgage payments. Otherwise, the Foxes risk foreclosure on the dream home they have occupied for only one year.

The Bowmans and their neighbors sued the City of Petaluma and Sonoma County in 1982, alleging that local construction increases runoff into the river and that river bridges cause the water to back up during storms. The suit has not come to trial.

So the Bowmans remain ensconsed on a flood way, an area most susceptible to water during a flood, according to federal designation.

Federal regulations from the late 1960s and early 1970s probably would have prevented construction of their home today, but the rules didn't exist when the house was built in 1960.

Jim Bowman said the real estate agent who sold him the home in 1973 never mentioned the possibility of flooding.

Flood After Flood

Each flood leaves the house in disrepair, said the Bowmans. After the most recent flood, they tore paneling off the bottom four feet of their walls, exposing the 2x4s in the frame, to see whether the insulation was wet and needed replacing. They removed wet rugs and pushed much of their ruined furniture into a corner of their tilted floor.

Seated next to his wife on a dank living room couch, Jim Bowman, 43, said that the roaring river behind their home washed away so much soil that the back of the house slipped six inches below the front.

Bowman said he wanted to move his family out of the house, in part to lessen the strain that developed as a result of the flooding.

Earning about $11 an hour as a civilian carpenter for the Army, however, Bowman worried that unless he sold the house, he would not be able to afford the $280-a-month mortgage and a potential monthly rent of $750 for an apartment.

The Fox family suffered similar fears. Rob Fox, a bearded 6-foot-5-inch machinist, his wife, Anne, who stands 6-feet-2, and their year-old daughter, Amanda, were just starting to enjoy the home built especially for their needs.

Counters four inches higher than the norm graced the kitchen and bathroom. A winding, knotty pine staircase led up from a redwood kitchen and living room to two pine bedrooms overlooking acres of trees.

The Foxes were in bed at 11 p.m. on Feb. 17 as their daughter slept in the next room. They were far above the rampaging Russian River, which had destroyed much of nearby Guerneville only days before, but they were worried because rain had fallen nonstop for 48 hours. Then they heard the mud.

"You know what cement sounds like when it's coming out of a truck?" Rob Fox asked. "It's exactly the sound it started making. You couldn't tell where it was coming from.

Sounds of a Mud Slide

" . . . Anne said 'What's that?' I said, 'Mud slide.' Then all of a sudden it started snowballing and getting louder and louder and louder. It hit the house pretty hard and it shook us a pretty good jolt. Even then we still didn't have a clue as to what happened.

"So I went downstairs. We have this little guard on the stairway to keep Amanda from going upstairs and I stepped over that into about two feet of mud."

The Foxes moved tentatively down their hilly front yard, where the mud had washed away their stairway, to a neighbor's home. In the morning Fox looked through the tall trees surrounding his house and saw that a small road and canyon 100 feet above had collapsed.

As a condition of Fox's construction loan, a soil engineer had surveyed a stream on one side of the house and determined that it could handle a 100-year storm (the worst storm in a century). The slide, however, came from the other side of the house which had no stream and was not surveyed.

At the peak of the slide, a seven-foot tree stump, 18 inches wide, crashed through a sliding glass window and fell on the kitchen floor. The wall was so damaged that Fox removed it to make rebuilding easier.

A long tree slid down the hill and severed the posts supporting the deck, which washed away in the mud. A 1979 Honda parked in front of the house washed across a narrow road and lodged half way over a hill while a 1976 Opel parked next to the Honda bounced 50 feet down the hill, settling in a foot of mud.

Knowing the force of a mud slide, the Foxes worry that the unsurveyed area behind them may collapse again.

They would like to move, at least for the winter, but Fox, who grosses $540 a week, was afraid he can't pay rent and make payments of $660 a month on their $65,000 mortgage.

He estimated that the value of the house, assessed at $82,000 a year ago, has plummeted. If they keep their home, the Foxes will have to repair the kitchen. They also need to replace their demolished car. The other vehicle parked in front of their home belonged to a friend.

To help repair the damages resulting from the 1982 flood, the Bowmans obtained a $16,000 loan, which doubled their mortgage. They have replaced most of their possessions but said they were at least four years behind in their battle for financial security.

Family Problems

Frances Bowman said resentment over their economic situation and the tension of anticipating another flood has driven her and her husband apart.

" . . . I think I even got to the point where I was blaming him by thinking, 'Gees, why doesn't he get us out?' " Frances Bowman said.

"The boy (her son) doesn't seem to understand," she added. "He sees what we're going through. But he doesn't understand how come we're sitting here. (He wonders) why don't we get out?"

When the couple took a rare trip to Long Beach before the 1986 flood, reports of heavy rain in Northern California ruined their enjoyment, Frances Bowman said.

Watching television in her motel room that night, she heard an ominous weather report.

"Automatically, that's scary," she said. "So the next thing you know I'm calling home. I must have made 20 calls. . . .. He's (her husband) upset because I'm running up a bill.

"We went out with another couple. I literally got sick at dinner because they were talking about the storm.

"So we get back to the motel, and he got mad at me. And I just said I couldn't stand it anymore. I said 'I've got to get home.'

"So Thursday morning, we got up, and he said 'Do you want to go home?' And I said, 'Yes' . . . We threw our stuff into the suitcases. We got home at 4 p.m. and at 6 it started raining.

Saving Mementos

"And I'm glad we did (return home). He says if it does (flood), what can we do? There isn't anything you can do to stop the water. But there are some things you can save.

"Who wants to live like this constantly? It's taken a toll because I'm tired all the time, and what tiredness is, it's depression. . . . When it rains hard I get real panicky, you know, nervous, irritable. I try to go to bed, and if it starts coming down heavy, like a thunder shower, I mean it's like all those flashbacks. I get a lot of flashbacks."

Leonard Schwartzburd, a Berkeley psychologist who has counseled about 50 flood victims, said many of them suffer flashbacks. He said flooding becomes traumatic because it affects people's profound literal and symbolic need to "keep their feet on the ground.

"When that is accompanied by what is perceived to be negligence by the city or the builders, or when they believe insurance companies are withholding payments unfairly, there's a deep sense of betrayal," he said.

"People also typically experience a great deal of anger and rage with regard to how this could happen to them. They're going to direct it in the safest place they have, which is their family. So unfortunately it destroys or puts tremendous pressure on families."

Dr. Dennis Munjack, director of the anxiety disorders clinic in the department of psychiatry at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, said that in addition to "upsetting, obtrusive flashbacks," disaster sufferers feel anxiety, temporary memory losses or inability to concentrate.

They can lose "the ability to enjoy themselves," he said. "They can't feel intimate. They can't feel tender. They can't feel sexy. They just feel flat."

Many victims of the Jan. 4, 1982, Petaluma flood experienced those symptoms this year after dark skies delivered a second blow, dropping 6.2 inches of rain in the area in one day. The Bowmans were among 500 residents who fled their homes, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported.

Water in the Streets

Asleep early that morning, Jim Bowman received a phone call from a friend who said he was four blocks away and couldn't get through flooded streets to pick Bowman up for work. He asked how the river looked.

"I looked out and I said it's high, but that's all," Bowman said.

"And that's all we basically watched. And the next thing its coming through the fence, up to the sidewalk and . . . on the deck outside the glass door," Frances Bowman said.

"And this is stupid," she said. "Everybody remembers this. I ran back and got every bath towel I had. I had it all shoved in this glass door, right?

"(After I did that) I was panicky. I ran down the hall and we had a carpet in the bathroom. The carpet was floating already. The water had gone under the house and come through.

"Then a neighbor kid comes over. He says 'Let's go. I've got a boat.' I said, 'What do you mean you got a boat?' He says, 'You better look out front.'

"The Volkswagen we owned was sitting in the driveway and the water was over the wheels. There was no way for us to get the cars. So I walk out there and I look at this raging river going down the street and he says, 'The neighbors across the street said for everybody from this side of the street to come over for coffee and I have to row you over there.'

"There were 50 people in that house," Frances Bowman said. "Now all of a sudden water started coming in. Now mind you, nobody thought about how they we're going to get out.

"(She and others were) standing on this woman's couch, you know, the water is up to the cushions, and then I was sitting on the arms, holding my feet up, and it was over me.

"That's when I started getting panicky because I thought, 'Is anybody gonna come and get us out?' We couldn't use a radio. She had one of these huge plants, and I'm sitting there and the plant is floating by me, floating down the hall.

"Some people would try to get on top of the refrigerator. And somebody was sitting on a dishwasher that wasn't built-in and it came up and started to float.

"Well, finally a boat came. They pulled the boat right through the front door, into the front room and they could only take four at a time," she said.

"They took two trips before I went. A couple of boats capsized because the current was so bad. And I can't swim, so I really started getting panicky.

"Well, finally they came back and when I got in that boat and looked over at my house, I just came apart. The water was almost up to the top of the windows. But you don't realize what's going on inside.

"You know, I thought the next day, when we came back, everything was gonna be sitting there. My one (living room) table like this was in my neighbor's front yard. We were slipping and sliding up the driveway with the mud, and I'm looking at her front yard and I thought, 'Gee, that looks like my table.'

Mud Everywhere

"When we walked in, the mud just covered everything. We were swishing. And we were walking from room to room, and you know we didn't know where to start?

"I had thrown a basket of dirty clothes on the bed. . . . And I grabbed the clothes basket and we left. We were in shock."

Memories like this leave Frances Bowman pessimistic.

"Jim is saying, 'I guarantee you that we will not be here next winter,' " she said later. "(But) we have no money. My thing, in the back of my mind, is, I know we are going to be here. But how do I fix this house?' Do I want to put everything into it, or just have the walls painted? The bare essentials?"

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