Trapped in Guerneville: A reporter finds himself marooned by Russian River’s floodwaters

The practitioners of journalism have a troubling habit of placing themselves in dangerous situations, so I wasn’t particularly surprised early Wednesday morning when I found myself trapped in Guerneville with water closing in all around me.

I had, of course, ignored the evacuation order the night before, thinking, as I am apt to do, that a good emergency would be an excellent time to talk to the locals. But it was still somewhat disconcerting to see every road out of town blocked by the rising Russian River.

I have experienced plenty of desperate situations — storms, riots, fires, algebra class — but I had never been marooned like this. Turns out, about 2,000 other folk had also ignored the emergency order and were even less concerned than I was.

The locals, for the most part, shrugged their shoulders, invariably offering platitudes like, “We’ve been through this before,” or “We know the drill,” and “I’m ready to ride it out.”

The few refugees who weren’t blasè or mildly amused were actually giddy. One woman nearly jumped for joy when she first saw the brown lake over River Road and knew she was penned in.

“I’m so excited I can barely talk,” she shouted, admitting it was her first flood while refusing to give her name out of a legitimate concern that her happiness might offend victims. “This is so cool!”

It wasn’t actually all that cool, as Michael Laszlo learned when he took a motorboat out to see how the flooded neighborhoods were faring.

Laszlo, 30, a lifelong Guerneville resident, took me for a ride through a brown, stinking stew of oily brown sewage water littered with the detritus of rural life. Along with the dirt and litter, the surging river had picked up ice chests, toolboxes, plastic play structures, children’s toys, garbage cans and porta-potties. Laszlo floated by a bubbling propane tank, ducked beneath telephone and power lines and pushed off submerged homes.

The flood of 2019 wasn’t as big as the great flood of ’86 that his parents always told him about, but it was the biggest one he’d ever experienced. The thing that surprised him, though, was how long and hard the rain had fallen before the flood.

“I’ve never seen water come down so much at one time,” Laszlo said, steering his boat past a “Drake Rd” sign that was barely peeking out of the water.

By Thursday, many locals had grabbed kayaks and canoes and were exploring their flooded community.

Nicole Carevich, 38, of Rio Nido, took her 7-year-old daughter, Annalei, on a canoe tour of Mill Street and the surrounding neighborhood which was covered in a glassy brown sea of filthy liquid. “It’s pretty sad,” Carevich said. “It’s awful.”

Annalei looked out over the festering lake. “Gross!” was her assessment. “The water is basically sewer water, which is not that good.”

There was a noticeable camaraderie among the trapped residents of Guerneville, who offered their brethren boat rides, couches and beds to sleep on and were quick to offer help to those in need.

Kenneth and Lynette McLean, the proprietors of the Highlands Resort, put up emergency workers and several ink-stained wretches — in this case the two photographers and two reporters who stayed during the flood. The Highlands, perched on a hill above downtown, normally caters to the LGTBQ community, but are also “straight-friendly.”

The McLeans cooked dinner for their patrons after most of the local restaurants closed down and generously offered them use of the clothing optional pool when the sun finally came out Thursday.

There were, miraculously, no power outages and what Wi-Fi there was continued to work for the two-and-a-half days Guerneville was cut off, prompting one person to refer to it as “the Cadillac of floods.”

Still, tensions rose with the water, culminating one night at the Trio Restaurant and Bar, where three of the four journalists in town were discussing over frothy beverages the joys of not having television news crews around when, suddenly, an argument broke out.

A lady, clearly stressed after being trapped for 24-hours by surging floodwaters, launched several haymakers at a man at the bar, grazing him on the chin. The gentleman declined to punch back and the incident was quickly diffused by patrons before anyone got hurt.

The Russian River topped out at 45.38 feet Wednesday night before it began to recede. The last time it got that high was in 1997 when the river surged to 44.99 feet. The record was 50 feet in 1986, when the river was flowing down Main Street and the entire downtown was flooded.

It will take Guerneville and the surrounding communities along the Russian River months and hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up and recover from the flood, but there isn’t a soul in town who isn’t ready for the task.

“We’re all family,” said the man who separated the couple at the Trio Restaurant, referring both to the fisticuffs and the town itself. “Everything will be back to normal in no time.”

Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @pfimrite

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