California residents survey damage as historic floods recede

Sonoma County Town Of Guerneville Inundated With Flood Waters From "Atmospheric River" Weather System
Posted at 2:54 PM, Feb 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-28 17:55:35-05

GUERNEVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Tom Orr began moving lyrics and scripts, clothes and photo albums from his apartment as authorities ordered evacuations along a rapidly rising Northern California river that was threatening to reach a historic crest.

But the actor and writer couldn't move costumes, computers and performance videos. So he shifted those to his loft bed about 10 feet up and prayed they would survive. 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 woke up Thursday to assess the damage as water started receding. Orr, 48, was among those still unable to get into his house after the rain-swollen river climbed to its highest peak 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.

The Russian River in wine country north of San Francisco crested at more than 46 feet (14 meters) Wednesday night, and floodwaters were receding after a two-day storm inundated the area. One National Weather Service station measured 20 inches of rain in 48 hours.

While no flood-related serious injuries or deaths were reported in Sonoma County, a man about 150 miles (330 kilometers) to the north in Ferndale died trying to rescue three children.

The unidentified man was trying to walk from a barn to his home through up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) 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 (473 kilometers) 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 were cut off by floodwaters that swamped the communities. About 2,000 homes, businesses and other structures were flooded by water up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) deep and 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."

Sandra Jagger, 69, said that within hours of her morning walk Wednesday, the water had reached the bottom of the steps leading to her apartment in Guerneville.

"It came up real fast," she said. "I was thinking, 'Well it's going to be fine, it'll stop.' But when it started coming up the steps, I got a little nervous."

Officials received no calls for help overnight from hundreds of people who stayed in their homes instead of heeding evacuation orders, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office said in a statement.

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 video containing decades of essays, performances, ideas for musicals and "sassy satirical parodies of Broadway show tunes."

"It is what it is," he said. "Family and friends across the country are reaching out and offering shelter and funds to help re-locate. I'm lucky."


Har reported from San Francisco. Associated Press Writer Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco also contributed to this report.