On February 27-28th up to 20 inches of rain fell in less than 48 hours in the Russian River watershed and we experienced the largest flood event in 23 years. Over 2,600 homes and businesses were flooded, mostly on the lower Russian River. The estimated $155 million in losses is a reminder that Sonoma County ranks as the highest repetitive flood loss in our state, despite elevating over 330 homes out of harm’s way. Russian Riverkeeper and our Clean River Alliance program (cleanriveralliance.org) joined forces with many volunteers to help homeowners clean out flooded homes as quickly as possible in order to get them dried out to prevent mold. The need was staggering with our crews working off a list of over 650 people requesting help, many of them elderly or unable to pickup wet, heavy items. RRK Executive director Don McEnhill conceived a plan to match up volunteers with those in need. A call for volunteers went out on social media and was picked up by Press Democrat columnist Chris Smith.
Beginning on March 6 and for the following 4 days, Russian Riverkeeper and Clean River Alliance staff set up a booth on the Guerneville Plaza, armed with cleanup supplies, safety equipment and a list of residents in need. And the volunteers arrived, with trucks, trailers, strong arms, and willingness to get very dirty. In all, 52 volunteers showed up from all over Sonoma County, and as far away as Richmond and Sacramento. Staffers dispatched volunteers to homes throughout the lower river, where they hauled soggy, silt encrusted furniture, carpeting, appliances and everything imaginable from homes and garages. They piled it up at the curb for removal by the county, or in many cases hauled it away to dumpsters. The volunteers were unfailingly cheerful, and many came back several days in a row. We also greatly appreciate the national disaster relief groups that are made up of volunteers who came to help our community recover. In particular Nechama, the Jewish Disaster Relief volunteers who are still helping as you read this a month after the floods!
While our flood program was short in duration and grassroots, we came away with a great sense of accomplishment and pride in how we were able to help the river community. We intend to use it as a framework, ready to deploy quickly during future flood events.
Once people were finally getting back into their homes, we were able to help the river and coast by helping to organizing a quick volunteer cleanup in Jenner to remove all the debris that landed on our coastal beaches after the flood. We will be cleaning up the riverbanks well into summer and appreciate all the donations you’ve sent to support that work.
Can we avoid the next flood?
After disasters people search for solutions to avoid the next one but moving the communities along the lower river has been explored and is not feasible. If we acknowledge the changes that make us more vulnerable to flooding we might find solutions. Developing over 80% of former riparian areas that used to be our sponges in floods and paving over more of our watershed so water runs off faster make us more vulnerable. Restoring our floodplains, avoiding any additional development of floodplains (Barlow?) and upstream rainwater harvesting and other tactics that slow water down and sink it or store it temporarily can help us in both floods and droughts. The Sonoma County General Plan update is a good chance to voice your opinion on whether we should plan for the future in new ways or continue on the same path that got us here. Riverkeeper is pursuing these solutions every day, from building rain gardens and rain barrels at the local scale to working on the Hanson Floodplain Restoration on a watershed scale. We can create a stronger more climate resilient community together…if we change!