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Thousands Flee Floodwaters in North of State

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Thousands of Northern Californians fled their homes Monday as the third in a series of warm, moisture-laden Pacific storms barreled into the state, pushing Wine Country rivers well beyond their banks, inundating roads throughout the region and killing at least one person.

With weather forecasters eyeing two more storms gaining strength off the coast, evacuations were under way from just north of San Francisco to Eureka, near the state line. Four more inches of rain were expected late Monday night and today in parts of Northern California, and forecasters saw no letup all week.

“This has the potential to be a full-blown natural disaster,” said Santa Rosa meteorologist Steve Newman.

Late Monday, Gov. Pete Wilson declared a state of emergency in Humboldt, Lake, Tehema and Sonoma counties.

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In the Sierra, winds neared 100 m.p.h. Monday across the highest ridges, and blizzard conditions were reported as blowing snow reduced visibility in some spots to near zero. Elsewhere, rain mixed with wet snow threatened to produce mountain flooding.

The full force of the storm was expected to hit Southern California today, producing renewed flooding and mudslides.

In the northern part of the state, the Russian, Napa, Petaluma, Eel, Smith, Van Duzen and Sacramento rivers were all near or past flood stage Monday.

Water or mudslides forced the closure of a number of roads and highways, including a 100-mile stretch of Interstate 5--California’s principal north-south highway--between Woodland and Red Bluff. California 1 was closed at several points along the coast north of San Francisco.

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By late in the day, the Red Cross had opened 14 emergency shelters in six counties. Government officials, unable to keep up with the rapidly changing conditions, could not say how many homes were flooded, putting the figure only in the thousands. But Red Cross officials estimated that more than 2,650 families had been forced from their homes or would be told to leave.

In Sonoma and Napa counties, home to most of California’s world-renowned wineries, the flooding was the worst since the Valentine’s Day flood of 1986 that drove about 50,000 people from their homes.

In Monterey County, a garbage collector was killed Monday when a tree toppled onto his truck, crushing the cab. The man, whose name was not released, was driving in Carmel Valley.

National Guard troops ordered into action by Gov. Wilson aided residents in Sonoma, Glenn, Humboldt and Tehama counties. They used helicopters, 15-passenger bridge boats and five-ton trucks to locate and evacuate stranded residents.

Officials in Glenn County ordered the evacuation of about 2,800 residents of the Hamilton City area as the Sacramento River crested there Monday night.

Worst hit was the Guerneville area along the Russian River, about 60 miles north of San Francisco, where National Guard helicopters Monday afternoon evacuated flood victims from a staging area at the Korbel Champagne Cellars. The river was expected to crest late in the day at about 47 feet, 13 feet above flood stage. The area was pelted by 10 inches of rain over the weekend.

Stacy Sincheff lives in an area of Guerneville known as “submarine flats"--one of the first neighborhoods to go under. “We lost everything but the family photos, our clothes and ourselves,” she said.

The refugees were taken first to a shelter in Sebastopol--on High Street--and when that center neared its capacity of 200, another was opened in nearby Santa Rosa.

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Many of those forced to flee Guerneville said they were caught off guard by the river’s rapid rise Sunday afternoon and Monday morning. Some left by small craft, floating past debris as they sought higher ground. Others boarded 2 1/2-ton National Guard transport trucks that drove through the floodwaters. One even hitched a ride on a trash bin floating by.

Those who made it to the shelters described evacuees wading through waist-deep water, cars almost submerged and residents sitting on their rooftops awaiting rescuers.

Richard Rothlin, a Santa Rosa resident stranded in Guerneville while visiting, said neighbors were helping one another until authorities arrived. He described the rescue effort as a “tribute to tenacity” and said he was one of the lucky ones, because he had no home in town to lose.

“I just lost my sleep and my clothes,” he said, gesturing at the plaid pants and red blazer handed to him at the shelter. “I look like a Pebble Beach golfer.”

Ernie Buchanon was in his apartment on low ground near the river late Sunday when he was trapped by the waters and left trying to figure out how to escape.

“Lo and behold, this Dumpster comes floating down,” he said. Jumping inside, Buchanon said he fashioned a paddle from a broom and dustpan, then negotiated the waters to reach his car, which he moved to a dry spot on a hill. After spending the night there, he was rescued by a sheriff’s boat.

“I’m an old-salt boat coxswain from the Navy,” said Buchanon, who broke a rib and wrenched his knee during the ordeal, “but it’s the first time I sailed a Dumpster.”

For Lin Maslow, 36, a resident of nearby Forestville, the vessel of opportunity was a motorized water ski.

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Maslow said that with the water standing about six feet deep on the riverfront road leading to his home, he was beginning to wonder what to do.

“Then the sheriffs showed up on some of those jet skis,” he said. “I climbed on the back of one of them, and they gave me a ride about a half-mile down to where the road came back up out of the water.”

Throughout the day, animal control officials were trying to round up abandoned pets and livestock. Many of the first evacuees, apparently misjudging the severity of the flood, left their animals behind, said Doug Smith, a Sonoma County animal regulation officer.

Later arrivals at the shelters brought their pets with them. By nightfall, there were a dozen cats and dogs--and one python.

Although many feared the worst was still to come, about 900 residents in Napa Valley who were evacuated Sunday from the towns of Calistoga, St. Helena and Yountville were allowed to return to their homes Monday as the Napa River crested and began to recede. All the county’s schools were closed because so many roads were blocked by water.

“Right now we’re taking a wait and see attitude, with more rain expected,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Mike Loughran. “We’re really not sure what’s going to happen.”

Other areas farther inland were bracing for flooding Monday night as lakes and rivers swollen by the rains and mountain runoff threatened to overflow.

In Tehema, along the Sacramento River north of the capital, residents geared up for heavy flooding overnight, when the river was expected to rise past its flood stage.

“Most of our major roads have water on them, and the water’s still rising,” said Tehama County Sheriff’s Capt. Dennis Garton. “It changes from hour to hour.”

North of the wine country, Lake County spokeswoman Judy Murray said all roads in and out of Clear Lake were closed. “We’re blocked,” she said. “We’re hunkering down.”

Murray said the lake was rising at about two feet a day and was expected to pass its flood stage by the end of the week.

“We’ll be lucky if it takes that long,” she said.

The high winds spawned by the storm downed power lines throughout Northern California, darkening the homes of 285,000 people for various periods, according to Pacific Gas & Electric.

Gusts up to 50 m.p.h. forced the closure of two of the four runways at San Francisco International Airport, delaying domestic flights as much as two hours. Several international flights were canceled.

The unrelenting rains were being blamed in part on the jet streams, high-altitude winds that circle the Earth, carrying storms over California. National Weather Service forecaster Don Noxon said the storm track had dropped far south of its usual path for this time of year.

“That’s bringing the storms right across to us from Hawaii, and they’re picking up a lot of warm, moist air from the subtropics,” he said. “That’s giving us mild temperatures, locally heavy rain, a chance of thunderstorms--the whole schmear.”

The tropical nature of the storms was evident in the snow level--which hovered around 7,000 feet in the Northern Sierra, where rain was mixing with snow even over Donner Summit. Still, the Boreal ski area near Truckee reported 18 inches of new snow in the 24 hours ending at 1 p.m. Monday, and forecasters were expecting another foot or more by today.

Noxon said at least two more storms were poised off the coast.

“The forecast for the rest of the week is periods of rain,” Noxon said.

About the only people in Northern California still welcoming the wet weather were observers at the Department of Water Resources, where a drought center was being staffed as recently as Jan. 1, even though precipitation was well above normal in November and December.

“We needed just an average year after Jan. 1 and we were looking at being out of the shadow of drought,” said Jeff Cohen, a spokesman for the department. “We’re exceeding that, of course.”

Rainfall over the 48 hours ending at 4 p.m. Monday totaled 5.56 inches at the Marin Civic Center, 4.93 inches in Santa Rosa, 3.97 inches in Fort Bragg, 2.73 inches in Napa and 7 inches in Petaluma. Mt. Shasta reported 9.62 inches of rain.

It was even wetter in the Shasta-Siskiyou area. The gauge at Brandy Creek, on the shore of Whiskeytown Lake, collected 17.36 inches of rain in 48 hours. In Southern California, flash-flood watches were issued as the main force of the storm started moving inland.

Forecasters said that with the ground already saturated from last week’s storms, and up to four additional inches of rain expected in some Southland areas by tonight, there is a good chance of flooding and mudslides, especially in low-lying areas and below the hillsides stripped bare in the devastating brush fires of 1993. Residents in the Altadena burn area were told to be ready to evacuate.

The heaviest rain is expected in the Los Angeles area shortly after dawn today, just in time to snarl the morning commute.

Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan signed a declaration of local emergency Monday afternoon. Riordan’s declaration activated the city’s Emergency Operations Organization, a city staff group chaired by Police Chief Willie L. Williams that met before nightfall to assess the situation.

Responding to requests from local officials, Gov. Wilson on Monday declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Orange counties--the two hardest hit in last week’s flooding. Wilson’s declaration will provide state financial assistance for the repair of sewers, roadways, bridges and other public structures.

Seventy members of the California Conservation Corps have been deployed in the Carson area, building sandbag levees to deflect anticipated runoff from overburdened flood channels and helping residents clean up homes inundated in last week’s floods.

Paddock reported from Sebastopol. Weintraub reported from Sacramento. Times staff writer Eric Malnic in Los Angeles contributed to this article.

* O.C. BRACES FOR MORE: Sandbags are stacked, drains cleared for expected rains. B1

* RAINSTORM GRAPHIC: B1

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fleeing the Flooding

Thousands of Northern Californians have evacuated as relentless winter storms push rivers over their banks. Especially hard hit are Napa and Sonoma counties, which were hit by mudslides, power outages and flooding that cut off some towns.


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