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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)

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.

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