The Town That Nearly Got Washed Away--Again : Flood: For the second time in a decade, Guerneville is under water. Weary residents wonder whether to rebuild.


There weren’t many folks left in town on Tuesday.

The Russian River had crested during the night at 15 feet over flood stage and cold, muddy water swept without mercy through this blue-collar resort town, long a playground for the Bay Area and now a lake littered with uprooted trees, drowned automobiles and abandoned Christmas toys.

Almost everyone had fled by the afternoon--most of them in National Guard helicopters and boats; a few in vessels of their own design, including a surfboard powered by a weed-eater.

The good thing, of course, was that all 1,500 residents apparently had survived the powerful storm that waded inland from the Pacific. But most of the town--the main business district, the riverfront resort properties and the homes of the less affluent down on low ground--was submerged to the rafters.


For some of Guerneville’s newer residents, the flood was their first mind-numbing confrontation with disaster. For the old-timers--those who had struggled to rebuild after what had been thought to be the “flood-to-end-all-floods” back in 1986--it prompted the question of whether to give up, or give it one more try.

Opinions were divided among residents who dried off in relief shelters as they waited for the brown water to recede and reveal what was left of Guerneville.

Theresa Moon, 28, who moved into town and started managing a modest riverfront rental property six years ago, said that as far as she knew, everything she had--several cabins, mobile homes and her small house--”are completely under water.”

“But it’s a beautiful place,” she said. “There is a magic about the Russian River. People stick together, and I have friends here like I’ve never had before. If there’s anything left, I will go back and try to rebuild.”

Linda Cope was of a different mind.

Just last week, she said, a man had offered her some riverfront property that he vowed had escaped the 1986 flood, which peaked a foot higher than the current crest. Despite his assurances, she said, the place was under water.

“He was offering it at a low price, and now I understand why,” said Cope, 22, with a wry grin. “I think we’ll look for a place in Santa Rosa.”


Dan Kolstad, one of the old-timers, said he will be coming back. “It sure beats dodging bullets in the city,” he said.

Kolstad, a rugged, bearded man in his 40s, waited on a riverbank a few miles upstream from Guerneville, trying to hitch a ride back to his flooded home. Craft of all kinds--skiffs, canoes, rubber rafts, even surfboards--plied the river throughout the day, helping to deliver stranded residents to safety and hauling supplies to those who had chosen to stay.

Rooftops in the low-lying sections of Guerneville were dotted with people who waited patiently in a steady drizzle, often for hours, for help to arrive--either in inflatable “Zodiac boats” or in National Guard trucks with wheels big enough to ford the shallowest floodwaters.

Guerneville’s one-street business district--a Safeway store, a coffee shop, a drugstore, a couple of gas stations and the old auditorium that served as a rescue center until the water got too deep--stood silent and dark in up to 15 feet of water.

Guerneville, tucked astride the Russian River in a narrow, dark canyon about 10 miles inland from the Pacific, dates from 1865, when George Guerne built a sawmill to cut up giant redwood trees. Later a popular resort for the well-heeled from San Francisco, 60 miles to the south, Guerneville slid toward harder times after World War II as vacationers sought more exotic destinations.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many of its small cottages and cabins became havens for cash-strapped hippies and outlaw motorcycle gangs. But by the 1980s, entrepreneurs were aiming at a new clientele, sprucing up the sagging resort properties and promoting the Russian River as one of the nation’s premier gay vacation spots.

Most of the resorts were damaged by what is known around here as the Valentine’s Day Flood of 1986. Within weeks, new siding and fresh paint appeared on structures that could be salvaged; those that couldn’t were knocked down and rebuilt.

By the middle of March, Guerneville was back in business, ready to celebrate its seventh annual Slug Fest--a celebration of the gooey yellow gastropods that are native to the area.

Today, Guerneville hosts an eclectic mix of residents and visitors that includes weekend refugees from San Francisco, retirees, farmers, a few loggers and the vanguard of what many locals fear will be a spillover of suburbanites from rapidly expanding Santa Rosa, 20 miles to the east.

Guerneville’s more affluent residents, those who live in homes nestled on the wooded canyon slopes overlooking the river, escaped largely unscathed as the massive storm system dumped as much as a foot of rain in less than 24 hours.

But for those who live and work down by the riverbanks, it was a disaster. As the water rose, sometimes as fast as a foot an hour, they fled for their lives, leaving everything behind except the clothes they wore and the few treasured possessions they could carry in an old suitcase or a plastic bag.

“We lost everything,” said Kerry Ryan, a slim, dark-haired woman in her 20s who only a week ago had moved into a riverfront home now covered by water.

Ryan was among 17 adults and five children who were rescued by boat Monday night and deposited on an isolated spot of high ground on the west side of town. She said the rain-soaked group waited in vain that night for the helicopter that was supposed to take them to shelter.

“They left us overnight in the rain,” she said.

Finally, on Tuesday morning, Ryan and the others were picked up and taken to a staging area at the nearby Korbel winery before being transferred to one of the shelters set up in nearby towns.

David King, 32, had just moved to Guerneville a week ago and had to swim for it after the rising water left him stranded on his roof. He said he waited too long to drive out, and when he attempted to escape on an inflatable raft Monday night, the raft sank.

“So I tried to swim across the river,” he said. “I got pulled under by the current, and a log hit me. I couldn’t tell which way was up or down.”

King said that he climbed into the branches of a tree that stuck out of the water. After resting for a few moments, he swam to the far bank.

There, he said, he dug a small cave in the mud and took shelter until a rescue boat pulled him to safety Tuesday morning.

As he dried off at a shelter, King pondered the future.

“I don’t think I’m going to live in Guerneville,” he said.