Evacuation orders lifted for Sonoma Co. flood areas

Evacuation orders have been lifted for flood areas in Sonoma County now that the water is receding. 

As the floodwaters recede in the Russian River communities, the damage is emerging. 

When evacuees are allowed to return Friday afternoon, they will find muddy, debris-laden roads and yards, and silt inside homes and garages. 

Damage assessment teams from CAL OES and FEMA will be surveying the destruction, along with building inspectors from Sonoma County. 

"Our goal is not to red-tag homes, our goal is to make sure people can return to them," said David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. "At the same time, we need to make sure they're going to be safe."

Rabbitt estimates damage to public property at $25 million, a conservative approximation which includes the costs of emergency and public works responders. 

"The county has had a rough time with the wildfires, and now with the floods and we hope this is it for awhile, and we get some respite from disasters," Rabbitt told KTVU.  

Guerneville will not open to the public until Saturday. Friday, those entering will need identification to show residency. 

Thousands of people, though, never left, and simply rode out the flood in their homes. 

"We had a large flood here and it's going to take a while to recover," said Jerry Knight, owner of the historic River Theatre in downtown Guerneville.

"Water came from the front, the back, and bubbled up underneath," said Knight, leading the way into the cavernous music hall, more than 70 years old. "Chris Isaak played here for two nights, we just had Taj Mahal," said Knight, "and here on our dance floor, we're one of the few venues offering swimming!"
Knight pointed to brown water, several feet deep, with chairs and tables upended and floating.

He was surprisingly upbeat about the damage, considering his stage had been submerged.    

"It's actually more of a loss than it looks, because the sound equipment in here all was under water," said Knight, "and It doesn't matter how much preparedness you think you've gone through, you always see something new."

On Front Street in Monte Rio, homes that back up to the river were among those hit hardest.
"I did not expect the water to get this high,"said Don Williamson, turning the key on his home of five years. "It looks like it got about a foot deep in the main level," he observed, his feet squishing through saturated carpeting and mud-slick floors. 

Williamson has bedrooms upstairs, untouched.

But his living room, kitchen and dining room, plus patio, are a muddy mess. 

"The river is still a good 30 feet higher than summertime," he noted, looking out at a backyard, invisible.
Stairs leading to a downstairs set of rooms are still submerged, making that level a fishbowl. 

Yet, he looks at the bright side.   

"Nothing that I really cared about has been destroyed," said Williamson, "and everything that was important was high enough the water didn't get to it."

Monte Rio's fire chief, a veteran of every major flood dating back decades, ranks this one with the worst of them.

"It ranks up there with some of the higher floods, over 45 feet, and it came up quicker than I've ever seen it come up," said Steve Baxman, touring KTVU through some flooded areas in his high-water vehicle. 

Baxman credits early warnings and evacuations for keeping rescues to a minimum. 

But the damage, even with many properties elevated, is staggering. 

"All these places, water got inside them, look at the debris in the yards. Yeah there's a lot of work to be done here," said Baxman.

"The worst of the worst is that people got damage, lost their stuff. But the best is that nobody got hurt, everybody's safe."

Thursday night, Guerneville remained mostly empty, except for work crews.

And the lights were on at the River Theatre, as owner Knight prepared for a big clean-up.

"Lots of Clorox," he joked, while pointing to prized music memorabilia hung high on the walls and out of danger. 

Despite his losses, Knight is determined to keep the music playing.  

"Lots of people are worse off than me, but we're strong as ever, compassionate, we care for each other," said Knight, "but maybe give a prayer to help us through."