Businesses struggle to reopen in Sebastopol after flooding

Flood victims from Sonoma County came together Wednesday evening for answers and support. 
Many from a water-ravaged shopping complex, wonder why a flood plan that should have protected them, didn't.  

"There needs to be some changes for sure, we need to have a better system," said Melissa Minton, General Manager of the Community Market, located at the Barlow, a warehouse-chic shopping district that occupies 12 acres near downtown Sebastopol. 

During the atmospheric river storms two weeks ago, heavy rain pushed the Laguna de Santa Rosa over its banks and into a few dozen Barlow businesses.

That day, Minton and her staff scrambled to save what they could, and wanted to wanted to block the door by assembling a stacking-style wall designed for that purpose.   

"Unfortunately our flood logs were stored in a part of the Barlow that was already flooded so they couldn't get them out," said Minton. 

Other Barlow merchants had similar experiences: flood barriers erected  too late, too low, or not at all. 
"Everyone seems to want answers, and we're still assessing our damage," said tenant Andrea Kenner, who owns Tamarind Clothing, which lost more than $150,000 worth of merchandise. 

Like other Barlow vendors, Kenner has a GoFundMe account for her shuttered business, and is struggling with recovery. 

"I think we've all shed a lot of tears and this meeting, the purpose is to focus on hope and learning about resources fo us," said Kenner. 

The city-sponsored meeting offered words of support from elected leaders. 

"This is my town, my mom grew up here, I raised my kids here and we're all in this together," Sebastopol Mayor Neysa Hinton told the crowd. 

Flood victims were also offered guidance on debris removal, inspections and permits, and disaster aid. 

"Unfortunately, disaster victims are not treated equally," warned Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, cautioning that federal assistance is more difficult to win when a disaster is of relatively small scope.

"We don't have a lot of people, we don't  have gigantic property values and massive infrastructure," said Hopkins, " so that makes it harder for us to get that disaster declaration."

In addition to the Barlow, Sebastopol's Community Center suffered heavy damage, and most classes and activities are on hold.

Sebastopol's affordable housing also took a hit when a trailer park full of seniors became submerged.   
Although some meeting participants had questions about the timeline and failures at the Barlow, those inquiries were deflected. 

"I can say the Barlow had a very involved flood protection plan," said Sebastopol City Manager Larry McLaughlin, "but we're doing an ongoing review of what actually occurred at the Barlow, so we're not able to respond right now." 

In order to build in the flood plain the complex had to develop and demonstrate an effective plan and apparatus. 

Management even posted a video on YouTube, showing the flood logs being assembled, and said the entire deployment took 50 people 11 hours to accomplish. 

Why the plan wasn't activated in the face of such a well-publicized storm remains unclear, and KTVU inquiries to the property owner were not returned. 

But in the midst of repairs, many merchants say they would rather look forward. 

"We're all focused on getting open there's no time to be mad, it's counterproductive," said Minton.

She hopes the Community Market - now cleaned and awaiting electricity- can reopen late next week, and bring 45 employees back to work. 

"That's number one. I don't care about anything else," said Minton, "because that's the hardest thing, the people who don't know how they're going to pay their rent, and how they're going to eat."