$1.5 million in state aid to help Russian River flood victims

Of the estimated $155 million of destruction wrought by the February flood, $1.5 million in state aid will go towards helping the residents of communities along the Russian River. Late September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a budget trailer bill after the area was deemed ineligible for FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, funding as only 151 homes sustained damage, according to the Press Democrat. 

In the past, FEMA has only granted aid when over 800 homes have been affected. The original estimate projected 2,000 homes and buildings had been impacted, reported by the Los Angeles Times earlier this year.

The cost of flood insurance was too high for some Guerneville homeowners and small businesses. While not uncommon to see flooding in the area, many were not equipped to experience the worst conditions since 1995, where the river level reached 48 feet. According to the National Weather Service, it crested at 45.38 feet earlier this year, forcing residents to canoe along what were once roads to survey their properties.

The incident closed 46 campuses among 17 school districts across the county as some had lost power, including Rancho Cotati High School, according to the Press Democrat.

The immediate concern, as discussed in an August KCBS Radio special, is the threat of serious wildfire that would require evacuation orders while some major roadways are still closed — either severely damaged by mudslides or full of debris. Sonoma County Supervisor of Guerneville Lynda Hopkins said that the area lacks an effective emergency notification system despite attempts at testing wireless alerts downtown and that there are no real means to warn tourists during fire season, especially those who are by the river.

Hopkins said that federal response has been an “incredibly slow and frustrating process,” citing that their “13,000 is a drop in a bucket compared to our major cities in the area. So I am constantly, as a rural representative, fighting for dollars, fighting for funding, fighting for resources to be pulled off of the 101 corridors. And I often feel like I’m losing that battle.”

The distribution of the $1.5 million has yet to be addressed, though property owners will not be receiving individual grants. To access the funds from the state, it is required that county officials put in a formal request, according to the Press Democrat. Hopkins explains that she is hopeful that how they go about spending the money is “a transparent, community-driven process.” 

Although the aid is just a fraction of what is required to repair and rebuild, Assemblyman Jim Wood said it would be an “almost impossible” feat to secure the $155 million in funding that the area and community needs.

In the last 80 years, Guerneville has seen flooding from the Russian River 38 times, says Mercury News. Building a dam to prevent future flooding could cost up to $1 billion according to retired UC-Davis professor of earth sciences and river expert Jeffrey Mount. 

“Put up a monster dam? Who is going to pay for that? ...The best you can do is tear down those houses or elevate them.” 

Sonoma County started a program to help cover the cost to lift homes in 1995 which can supply residents with as much as $39,000 if they get flood insurance and only use the lower level for storage after raising the first floor at least 10 feet high. In the last 20 years, around 250 houses have been raised says Mercury News.

While the area may be at risk year-round, residents and businesses remain for the scenery and small town atmosphere.