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LeBARON: 'Worst' is relative when it comes to Russian River floods

Bonnie King, left, helps her husband, Grant, across Main Street in Guerneville after the downtown area was flooded when the Russian River crested at 49 feet, 2 inches in February 1986.

CHRIS DAWSON / The Press Democrat file, 1986
Published: Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 8:17 a.m.

A Guerneville resident appeared on our TV screen last weekend, her hair damp, her eyes wide. She was watching the Russian River rise.

“It's the worst I've ever seen,” she told the news guy.

The River (which I afford the respect of a capital letter) was about to crest somewhere around 29 feet.

If I listened closely, I thought, I would hear the guffaws from the people gathered at Grant King's sporting goods store or more faintly, in the dimmer past, from the River Rats at the bar in Gori's Tavern.

There would be snide remarks and suggestions that she obviously hadn't been around town long. The worst she'd ever seen, you see, was about 20 feet below what the Guerneville old-timers had experienced.

They had seen that old devil River flowing through the Safeway store, the downtown streets and every resort that ever was; everywhere in fact, except a few very high hills along Armstrong Redwoods Road. Luckily for many of them, there was a spot by the Catholic church where a helicopter could land to get them the heck out of there.

That was more like “worst.”

But people are like that about natural disasters. Everyone assumes that the history of any place began the day they arrived.

Oh, I know. You're sick to death of old folks saying that you ain't seen nuthin' like they've seen.

“You call this a blizzard? Lemme tell ya about the snowstorm of 1888. Now THAT was somethin'.”

Sometimes, though, we Sonoma County codgers have the statistics to back us up. And plenty of those less-than-fond memories.

These might include the Christmas floods of 1955, two storms four days apart when the River crested at 47.62 feet in G'ville — nearly a foot more than the 1940 high, which had been considered the record.

There are all kinds of tales told of '55 but none more dramatic than the experiences of the 50 people, half of them children, who huddled together in the restaurant at Hilton Resort, with no heat, no lights, eating pancakes made from flour and water to save what milk they had for the kids.

Even so, they were very merry when, on Christmas Day, Santa Claus — with a Red Cross escort — chugged in on a National Guard amphibian, bringing dinner. And presents.

Anyone interested in Christmas storm-talking might want to hear from any one of the 150 passengers, including a dozen children, on two Greyhound buses who spent seven days over the 1964 holiday at Terrace Gardens, a roadside restaurant along Highway 101 11 miles south of Garberville in Southern Humboldt.

Their Santa Clauses were the Greyhound drivers, plus a company inspector who was on one of the buses. They hiked the 22-mile roundtrip to Garberville and back on Christmas Eve to see that each kid had a present in the morning.

Every river in Northern California flooded that Christmas. At Guerneville, the river went to 47.3, just .32 inches below the '55 record.

It's mudslides — landslides — that people remember about 1982. The good earth turned to mush. Hillsides crumbled around Bodega, trapping residents in low places. Salmon Creek flooded homes along its banks and rushed on out to sea, taking a whole trailer park with it.

Then came the Valentine's Day storm of 1986. Barns blew down, winds lifted whole roofs off houses. The storm stalled right over us, dumping 10 inches and more of rain in a matter of a few hours. And the River at Guerneville hit a new high — 48.9 feet.

People who had truly believed that Coyote Dam in the ‘50s and Warm Springs Dam in '83 would solve Russian River flood problems forever developed a new respect for the forces of nature.

Just to remind us that she was in charge, Big Mama Nature struck again in 1995, cresting just over 48 feet at the Guerneville Bridge.

So, if it's flood stories you want to tell, better ask around town before you face the TV cameras.

And excuse us if we talk back to our Samsungs and Sonys when the TV journalists are standing out there in the first raindrops telling us it's the worst ever — or, worse than that, how bad its going to be.

There was a time, believe it or not, when newspapers and radio reported faithfully what had happened, not what was going to happen.

That was before the electronics media took away the surprise. Sometimes, as in the case of Sandy, the prognostications are right on.

But on too many occasions — as in the case of the Great Flood of December 2012 — there's a lot of hype for the sake of prime-time high drama.

Warnings, definitely. There's a lot on the Need to Know list. Pay attention to official announcements. Because, believe it, it will happen again.

But spare us the Prophets of Doom. There are plenty of things to worry about in real time.

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