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“Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”

Thursday, February 14th, 2013 | Posted by

Helicopter on Main street 1986

This year’s rainfall total for Santa Rosa since Jan 1 is 1.12″.  Last year on this date it was 8.75″.
At 2:30 p.m. today it was 63 degrees in Guerneville and the daffodils and magnolias are blooming. The sky is as blue as the eggs the resident robins are laying. Spring is more than a month away.
But if you could time-travel  back 27 years you would think you were on a different planet.

The following is a reprint of a post published a year ago:

Because no rain is in sight this post is being revived to remind us that with Ma Nature, you never know what may come creeping over the horizon.

Main Street looking West
If you were here in the West County in mid-February, 1986, you might have thought John Fogerty had just written “Who’ll Stop the Rain” to commemorate the tropical daisy chain of storms that relentlessly pounded the Pacific Coast during St. Valentine’s week.

And if you’re currently a River resident you might guess “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” was penned in resignation by Fogerty, in mid-February this year,  as a lament to Sonoma County’s parched landscape.

Candy Turner and baby

But February still awaits down the road — and who knows what it will bring?

Finally! It’s raining now, and few people are complaining, but during the week of February 12 to February 21, in 1986, Guerneville was saturated with 24.57″ of rain and the Russian River at Guerneville Bridge was cresting at an inch above 49 feet.

Tinker and Jane smiling through the Apocalypse


State Park Ranger Dan Murley writing in  a Guerneville weekly called The Paper, described “angry seas and 90-mile-per-hour winds which toppled antique Cypress trees at Ft. Ross like so many matchsticks.” He wrote of massive hunks of driftwood “tossed about like tiny Lincoln Logs” in the turbulent surf. But these turned out to be mere sidelights to the unspeakable devastation he and thousands of others were to witness as a result of the unprecedented rising of the Russian River. Three feet of water came roaring down Guerneville’s Main Street, Duncans Mills turned into an  island and would-be rescuers were laboriously slogging through chest deep slime and mud in their efforts to rescue the stranded people waiting to be evacuated.

People were cut off from the world by tremendous mudslides and the surging river current. Fallen trees crushed fresh-water lines, phone services abated, in most places the power was out. In Rio Nido the lights remained on in a house where the water was up to its rain gutters. At Jenner, Murley reported, gulls and a few people looked down upon a surrealistic sculpture of giant Redwood stumps, boulders, branches and immense trees arranged in a display of environmental art.

Waiting for a taxi in February, 1986

Cazadero Canyon and the hills beyond were cut off by winds and rains that made roads impassable, countless homes were completely submerged, and at the confluence of Austin Creek, where its water met the overflowing Russian,  at least a dozen homes were totally inundated.  Cazanoma Lodge which stood on high ground near Cazadero Road, became a sanctuary from which owner, Randy Neuman ventured forth to carry helpless people to safety. With waters rapidly rising a couple waded to their four-wheel-drive Scout holding a rope line, but the jeep started to bob in the onrushing water and a neighbor had to use a fir limb to pull the couple to safety.

Looking South Guerneville bridge and Hernandez Realty

In Occidental fallen trees crashed down, ripping power lines from houses and power poles, and blocked dozens of local roads.

All over, poor people living in “summer cabins” past their prime, in trailer parks like Spooner’s Resort, Summerhome Park and Sleepy Hollow saw their sub-standard housing turned to rafts of splintered wood by the turbulent waters, and Janie Walsh, then director of Sonoma County’s Housing Authority reported at least 300 people and families had been left homeless by the flooding, and a Damage Assessment Team counted 152 structures that had to be condemned. As if that weren’t enough, a Building Department spokesman said “there was a real possibility (in an area where 70 percent of the people have low to moderate incomes) that no new structures would be allowed on the land of those ‘vacated’

“The River”, in which Sissy and Mel get wet

by the flood.”

Twelve hundred people were evacuated, many by huge (estimated to average 50 people)  twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook helicopters, which managed to squeeze between the Russian Orthodox monuments above the graves in the cemetery atop Woodland Drive. Long queues of people wound their way up Woodland, some hiding smaller pets under their coats because pets were not permitted on the helicopters. More than 200 people took refuge in Santa Rosa’s Veterans Building.

Armstrong and Main looking toward River Theater

Because so many pets were separated from their humans, Jeff Kemp and Linda Van Tesslar of Sonoma County’s Humane Society “instantaneously” turned the Guerneville Branch library into a Stationary Ark where 2,000 hungry and stranded animals found sanctuary and received fresh water, food and care until they could eventually be reunited with their displaced human companions. Five tons of hay were dropped by helicopters and distributed to hill dwellers  who had no other sources of feed for their mules and horses.

Guerneville Bridge runs into trouble

Monte Rio firemen in twelve-foot inflatable boats assisted by National Guardsmen, Navy SEALS, CHP officers and the Sheriffs Department plowed through choppy waters conveying helpless residents to safety. Dutch Bill Creek backed up into the Monte Rio Fire Station and swelled into Monte Rio School’s classrooms. Bartlett’s store, the Pink Elephant,  and Jerry’s Restaurant stood under almost five feet of water. And fifteen feet of water rippled at the lower end of the newly refurbished Rio Theater.

The rains came from the Coast and drained to the Coast. Few people or businesses were left unscathed. Permanent markers remain on buildings from when the Russian’s flood waters peaked. Here it is, 26 years later, and the cleanup, which seemed an endless and impossible task,  may not be over yet.

All photos: Stephen D. Gross

We’re fairly sure everyone who experienced the Great Flood (and was conscious at the time) has a story to share, and we’d love to hear it. Please go to “Comments” and let us hear your tales.

  • http://mongrel4u.wordpress.com Michael Fisher

    I don’t want to think about this every year. Maybe we could skip a couple years and come back strong for the 30th Anniversary. Then we could have a gala flood reenactment with huge tanks of water released on the town, helicopter fly-overs, a water parade with zodiac boats doing tricky Blue Angel maneuvers on the river, overnight “refugee” campouts in the Vets Bldg with free government food buffet, generator power light festival, sandbag throw, silt slides for the kids. You get the picture.

    • Stephen Gross

      Thanks Dr. Fisher – good to hear from you. Great idea – but let’s include free screenings of “The River” with Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacesuit. I remember men toting six-shooters too, to keep the looters away.

  • Deb McGauley

    Ah yes, and we bought our first house – in Guerneville – in February, 1986. Law enforcement was stopping everyone at Mirabel and requesting ID as they were only letting residents pass. The only thing we had to prove we were residents was a copy of our loan papers. I remember the officer just shaking his head and saying “I’m sorry.” We were high and dry, but I’ll never forget that!

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