An estimated 2,000 homes and other buildings along the Russian River in Sonoma County have flooded after days of torrential rain sent water spilling over its banks and inundated nearby communities, authorities said late Wednesday.
By Wednesday night, rescuers had saved about 40 people who were stuck in floodwaters and authorities had closed 89 roads as the river swelled to about 45 feet — 13 feet above flood stage, said Sonoma County spokeswoman Hannah Euser. No injuries were reported.
The water was expected to start receding in the early morning hours Thursday.
People living in about two dozen areas near the river were ordered to evacuate by Sonoma County officials Tuesday in preparation for possibly the region’s worst flood in over 20 years. Officials staffed extra deputies and dispatchers to help with evacuations and field emergency calls, while two boats were deployed to the lower Russian River to get people out.
As of early Wednesday, a rain gauge northwest of the town of Guerneville had received nearly 20.5 inches of rain in 48 hours, according to the National Weather Service. The area is known for its steep coastal mountains and creeks lined by redwoods, which can rapidly funnel deluges from Pacific storms into the shallow Russian River.
The river first exceeded flood stage — 32 feet — Tuesday evening. By early Wednesday, it had swollen to 40.5 feet, essentially turning Guerneville into an island, and continued to rise. Forecasters predicted it woule reach its highest level at 46.1 feet — more than 14 feet above flood stage — late Wednesday.
People leaving their homes watched as rising water swallowed cars and flooded major roads into and out of the community. Officials said those who chose to stay in their homes could be stuck there for days. At midday Wednesday, residents could be seen using canoes to traverse parts of River Road.
Catherine Bartolomei, co-owner of the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, lamented the natural disasters that had befallen the region over the last couple of years, starting with devastating wildfires in Sonoma County in fall 2017.
“Between the fires and everything else, it’s flipping killing us,” she said.
Dane Pitcher, 70, watched from the third-story window of his bed and breakfast, the Raford Inn, in Healdsburg as rising water pooled to create a 100-acre lake in front of his property.
The substantial water, which swallowed up five rows of grapevines on his property, didn’t faze Pitcher. He’s seen the Russian River flood several times over the years. He joked that he had all the necessities — wine and mostly breakfast foods, given his business — to sustain him and his wife for a few days.
“We have waterfront property now,” he said lightheartedly. “We’re marooned for all intents and purposes, but that’s OK.
“For us, we’re veterans so it’s fascinating to watch, to a degree,” he added. “We’re not being inconvenienced like many people who are convinced this can’t happen or just move here and aren’t prepared. Locals like us know what to expect.”
The pounding rain had stopped in Sonoma County before the sun rose Wednesday after a low-pressure system shifted the atmospheric river-fueled storm out of the region. The storm, which lingered in the area for days, created the heaviest rainfall the region had received all winter, said Roger Gass, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the Bay Area.
“The atmospheric river was a hose of really deep moisture pointed right at Northern California that settled over Sonoma County,” he said. “It’s created a lot of problems.”
Some areas north of the river got nearly 10 inches of rain over the course of two days. Venado, a community north of Guerneville, had received nearly 2 feet of rain in 48 hours by Tuesday.
“A lot of the rainfall in that basin flows right into the Russian River,” Gass said.
This will cause the waterway, which cuts through several Sonoma County communities, to rise over the next several hours before reaching its peak and then slowly receding on Thursday.
The Russian River has seen numerous serious floods during wet years, but this inundation is poised to be the worst since 1995, when the river crested in Guerneville at about 48 feet, exactly 16 feet above flood stage. That flood caught a number of people in the community off-guard. They fled the region in small boats, floating past debris as they sought higher ground, while others boarded huge National Guard transport trucks that drove through the floodwater to rescue people from homes.
When the river flooded more recently in Healdsburg, in 2016, Pitcher placed a sign in front of his property to show how high the water rose. The river crested at 13.22 feet that January.