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Second storm wallops rain-soaked region


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The sequel in a powerful set of winter storms slammed the North Coast on Tuesday, with heavy rain and powerful winds triggering widespread flooding and power outages, and runoff swelling the Russian River well above its banks, threatening as many as 800 homes Wednesday as the floodwaters are set to rise to a level not seen in a decade.

The wind-driven storm, which packed a stronger punch than initially expected, appeared to score a direct hit on the region, prompting evacuations in parts of Marin County and toppling trees onto cars and houses, while submerging dozens of roads and knocking out power to at least 11,000 homes across Sonoma County.

Emergency crews fielded an onslaught of rescue and hazard calls from about 4 p.m., when the heaviest band of rain and wind hit, until 8 p.m., when the additional moisture in an already sodden week had re-submerged many low-lying areas inundated by floodwaters Sunday or Monday.

“We’re getting slides and trees down on power lines everywhere,” Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said about 9 p.m. as the calls started to taper off. “The ground is so saturated from all this rain. It’s not soaking in, and it’s all running off. Now, the ground is giving way.”

In the 72-hour period ending Tuesday night, a total of 8½ inches fell on Santa Rosa while nearly 20 inches drenched the hills west of Healdsburg.

All eyes Tuesday night were on forecasts for the Russian River, which overran its banks Monday, and was expected to push nearly 8 feet beyond flood stage to crest at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Guerneville at 39.8 feet. That’s the highest level since 2006 when waters surged to 41.8 feet, causing $110 million in flood damage.

Officials said 800 homes in the lower river area were at risk of flooding or being cut off by floodwaters. About 3,000 residents in the river communities from Forestville to Jenner remained under evacuation advisories Tuesday night.

“The flooding around Guerneville is going to get larger,” Christopher Helgren, Sonoma County’s emergency manager, said Tuesday. “There are going to be more places underwater.”

Russian River at Guerneville

The river is expected to return to within its banks Friday morning. Dry weather is forecast the rest of the week.

Tuesday’s storm ravaged a large swath of Northern California from Big Sur to South Lake Tahoe. But at times, it appeared the North Coast bore the brunt.

Late Tuesday, San Antonio Creek on the Sonoma-Marin border spilled its banks and closed Highway 101 in both directions, with authorities saying the roadway would remain shut until floodwaters subsided. Some residents of San Anselmo and the Ross area of Marin County were ordered to evacuate late Tuesday as floodwaters in the area bore down on homes.

On Tuesday, parts of central Guerneville were already under several feet of water, requiring emergency crews to paddle boats to rescue stranded residents. An evacuation advisory was in effect for 1,700 houses while a mudslide in the hills above Monte Rio threatened seven homes, which authorities put off-limits to residents because of safety risks.

“There’s mud coming down, trees falling. It’s so steep and you don’t want to get too close,” said Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum, who surveyed a slide in Monte Rio area. “It is pretty dangerous to get near it.”

Communities from Petaluma to Hopland were lashed with significant rain and gusts that topped at 64 mph at Gualala on the coast.

More than 50 Sonoma County roads remain closed Tuesday night, including low-lying roads like Green Valley and Mark West Station roads.

Crews were called Tuesday to rescue several drivers whose vehicles had been struck by falling trees and power lines. No serious injuries were reported.

The driver of a propane delivery truck was injured near Sebastopol when a falling tree struck the man, Helgren said. He was taken to a hospital but further details about his status were not immediately available.

A dozen public schools, most in western Sonoma County, will be closed Wednesday. For a list, click here.

Sonoma County’s emergency dispatch center had received about three times the normal volume of calls since Monday, including 289 callers reporting fallen trees or downed utility lines as well as 19 calls for people trapped by or stuck in water.

The calls were ramping up again Tuesday afternoon “right when the rain started flying sideways,” said Aaron Abbott, Redwood Empire Dispatch Communications Authority executive director.

“We’re receiving a lot of hazardous condition calls, those are trees that fall into wires and onto roadways, and fortunately not many people have needed a big water rescue,” Abbott said.

Many along the Russian River had been gearing up for another round of stormy weather based on forecasts calling for as much of 4 inches of rain in the hills. But the unrelenting deluge that greeted them after they awoke Tuesday seemed to catch many off guard.

“I think they got it wrong,” said a woman who drove up in a pickup outside the Monte Rio Fire Protection District as a torrential rain turned the roadway outside the station into a small lake. Firefighters were forced to unclog a street main to improve drainage.

Wind sent many trees crashing across power lines and roadways. Deep puddles of water began collecting on Highway 116, making travel along the main artery connecting river communities treacherous.

The Russian River spilled beyond its banks for a third day, completely submerging Monte Rio’s expansive beach as water lapped at the edge of an upper parking lot utility workers turned into a staging area.

Behind the fire station, David Wertzberger and his son, Joseph, filled sandbags in the pouring rain for use outside the family’s vacation home in central Monte Rio. Wertzberger displayed a cellphone photo taken of his backyard, which is now underwater.

“It would take the highest flood on record for there to be material damage at our home. So this is precautionary,” he said of the sandbags he planned to use outside his basement to try and prevent flooding.

In central Guerneville, several residents had to be rescued after floodwaters from Fife Creek rose suddenly.

Brittney Davis looked on anxiously as Russian River firefighters pulled away in a Zodiac raft to rescue Davis’ 6-year-old son, Aspen Bailey. The boy’s father, Lawrence Bailey, had called Davis asking her to come get the boy when water began rising outside the home.

But by the time Davis arrived, the water was too high for her to get in.

“It’s so scary,” she said before firefighters returned safely with the boy.

Melda Martinelli also endured anxious moments as firefighters went in for her mother, 82-year-old Ebe Cerqua.

The pair had left their travel trailer Monday to spend the night in a hotel. But Cerqua insisted on returning Tuesday to check on their cats.

She, too, became trapped by the swiftly rising floodwaters and had to be rescued. Her reunion with her daughter was bittersweet.

“We’ve lost our home, it looks right now,” a tearful Martinelli said.

The storm seemed to split around Petaluma, bringing heavy rain south and north of the town, but measured amounts to Petaluma, said fire Battalion Chief Jeff Holden. That helped keep streams from overflowing. “San Rafael and Santa Rosa are getting hammered,” Holden said.

Sonoma Valley was pelted by rain but also escaped significant damage. Creeks and ditches filled, but there were no reports of flooding except for the intersection of Broadway and Highway 121, which floods with regularity. It has been closed since Sunday.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced late Tuesday that it was preparing to make flood control releases from lakes Sonoma and Mendocino, both of which have swollen with recent storms above water supply levels.

Mike Dillabough, operations chief for the corps’ San Francisco District, said any additional releases would not begin until the river had dropped below flood stage despite initial plans to begin as early as Wednesday

Staff Writers Derek Moore, Randi Rossmann, Julie Johnson and Mary Callahan contributed to this story.