Vital Tourist Industry Struggles To Come Back From Russian River Flood

Holly Quan
August 23, 2019 - 12:15 pm
Tourists at Johnson's Beach in Guerneville

Holly Quan/KCBS

This is part two of a special four-part series tracking the flood recovery in Guerneville. For part one on cleanup click here.

Businesses along Main Street in Guerneville
Holly Quan/KCBS
GUERNEVILLE — The busy tourism season should be in full swing in Guerneville. The town’s many small businesses rely on the rush of tourists that flock to the river during the warm summer months to get them through the quiet winter.

But nearly six months after a historic flood delayed the start of the season and forced many businesses to shut down, it is not clear if everyone will be able to bounce back.

"For a lot of us, that was a rough beginning,” said chef Crista Luedtke. She signed the lease on her new German restaurant Brot just before the flood. The rising waters spared Brot and a few other businesses along Main Street, but they have still felt the impact from the slow return of visitors.

“We're a seasonal town so we've got basically from May to September to make our money," said Luedtke, who also owns boon hotel + spa, boon eat + drink and El Barrio. “It’s been a little bit of a challenge and I'm someone who's been here for 10 years. So I've got an established clientele and even for me, my numbers are really tight.”

Luedtke’s restaurants and hotel are busy now, along with many of the businesses that have managed to reopen. The historic R3 Hotel, one of Guerneville’s biggest employers, missed most of the summer season after it was hit hard by the flood.

"There are some that are still really struggling, that have had trouble dealing with their landlords and the insurance,” said Luedtke. “As a business owner you don't have the flood insurance, the owner of the building does. And how quickly they respond is up to them, and were they properly covered? There are still quite a few hotels that are not yet open. I just hope we have a strong end of summer and into harvest and fall so we can keep people thriving up here.”

Employees at Johnson’s Beach, a Russian River tradition, are also hoping to take advantage of the popular harvest season and warm fall months. The beach’s campground, cabins, snack bar and boat rentals are staying open late this year.

"We've extended the season to the end of October this year, which we decided to do prior to the flood,” said Chris Abbot, who works at the beach. It is the first year the season has been extended that late, which will give them more cushion to make up for the late start.

Visitors kayak in the river along Johnson's Beach in Guerneville
Holly Quan/KCBS
The beach was 30 feet underwater after the flood, but now the inner tubes and ice cream cones are back at the rental shack. There is no sign that several of the vintage cabins that date back to the 1920s were closed because of flood damage. “They’re completely sold out” says Abbot.

"My mom has been coming up since she was a little girl so I'm bringing my friends too so they can enjoy it all,” said 19-year-old Lucia Rose of Pacifica. “It seems to look about the same as it does every year so that’s great!"

And Abbot has found a silver lining in the devastating flood. “We hate the flood but nature - the campground itself, the trees grew in amazing and we were able to take campers right away," Abbot said. 

He’s confident that even if the flood changes the town, they will find a path forward. "Guerneville’s always had this ebb and flow," he said. "It’s not the first time the town has been through this. If you study the history of Guerneville, it’s always reinvented itself every 10 or 15 years."

Reported by Holly Quan. Written by Jessica Yi.