Guerneville Roads Remain Clogged With Mud, Debris Six Months After Historic Flood

Part 1 Of A KCBS Radio Special Report

Holly Quan
August 22, 2019 - 10:31 am
Road closed months after mudslides in Guerneville

Holly Quan/KCBS

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This is part one of a special four-part series tracking the aftermath of a flood along the Russian River earlier this year. 

GUERNEVILLE —It has been nearly six months since heavy rains inundated the Russian River Valley, cutting off towns and washing out roads in a 20-year flood that saw the river rise to 45 feet, OR 13 feet above flood stage. But with the amount of debris still clogging up major roads, visitors would be forgiven for thinking the flood happened last week.

Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman points out major debris flow left sitting for months
Holly Quan/KCBS
"Between water and mudslides, we could not leave town,” said Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman. He has been chasing calls in the Russian River Valley for 49 years and now leads a department of six — all volunteers. They cover 45 square miles that stretches from Forestville to the coast, and many of those roads have yet to be cleared and re-opened. 

"This is debris that came a thousand feet down the hill,” said Baxman, pointing out the remains of a debris flow along a giant berm that looks much as it did after the flood. “All the trees have fallen down and are crisscrossed. What's going to happen this next winter when it starts raining again? (The dirt) is probably 10-12 feet deep right here.”

He asks the same question as he peers over the edge of Moscow Road, a main route in and out of the valley, which is now crumbling into the valley below. "Look at those big cracks, any weight and that whole thing is going to go," he said. 

Crumbling pavement on Moscow Road in Guerneville
Holly Quan/KCBS

But Baxman does not have to venture far to see the consequences of the storm. His office sits just across from a section of the Bohemian Highway, another major route in and out of town. 

"Bohemian Highway has been closed since the storms because of a huge mudslide down here. Now look at this - someone just pulled over and set up alongside the highway and is living in it! All the structures are illegal and substandard, where's all the septic going? They're right on Dutch Bill Creek, where's everything going?" 

Local leaders are still waiting for federal funding to begin repairs. "It is an incredibly slow and frustrating process,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents Guerneville. Officials have met twice with FEMA officials to ask for approval for cleanup projects.

It is the slowest federal response after a flood that Chief Baxman can remember in his nearly 50 years as a firefighter in the area.

"I'll be honest; I think the federal government is threadbare right now,” said Hopkins. “I think they're dealing with a lot of disasters. It’s not just us, it’s disasters all around the State of California and it’s either fires or floods.” And Sonoma County alone has seen both.

"Dollars tend to follow the greatest population and we don't have a lot of year-round residents out here. 13,000 is a drop in a bucket compared to our major cities in this area,” said Hopkins. “So I am constantly, as a rural representative, fighting for dollars, fighting for funding, fighting for resources to be pulled off of the 101 corridor. And I often feel like I'm losing that battle". 

Reported by Holly Quan. Written by Jessica Yi.