GUERNEVILLE, Calif. — For a precious few hours, at least, this rain-wracked Russian River resort town poked its head above water Wednesday for the first time in three days.
Although much of the town remained flooded to the rafters and beyond, the olive-brown water finally retreated from several streets in the central business district Wednesday morning, as the river level dropped nearly eight feet from its record high on Tuesday.
And as the flood pulled back, some of the 1,500 residents moved back in, ready to clean up and start again--even as the rain continued to fall.
At Pat's Fountain and Restaurant, a small bar and grill on Guerneville's main street, owner Richard Hines and friends were dragging hopelessly muddied carpets out the front door.
Other store owners were salvaging goods and shoveling mud, hoping to reopen within three or four days.
Like others who returned to town--including those seeking only to stock up on food and water before retreating again--these people had waited out the flood by staying with neighbors high up in the hills above the river.
"You gradually keep moving to higher ground and higher ground until someone gets you," said Mary Lee Carli, whose husband, Frank, collected 36 stranded people in his dinghy Tuesday night.
People who had left the area were not able to return. Guerneville still was accessible only by helicopter, and residents were being flown only one direction--out to an evacuation center in Santa Rosa.
Hines, while cleaning his restaurant, was nonchalant about the disaster. He noted that he had survived the record floods of 1955 and 1964 and would outlast this one too.
"I was born and raised in this town," he said. "My grandfather started this place in '43, then my dad had it. Now I have it, and I'm not giving it up."
As Hines and the others toiled, several residents strolled the streets casually, noting that some stores already had replaced their window displays. The gawkers also stopped to joke with the people cleaning out Hines' restaurant.
"Hey, Jerry, what are you doing--playing in the mud again?" asked one kibbitzer.
Another man, when asked about the damage to his own business, shrugged with a smile: "I don't know if my flood insurance will cover it. It (the business) is not located at 19500 River Road anymore."
Despite the wisecracks, the situation remained serious in Guerneville and all along the Russian River.
Even though the floodwaters had receded somewhat, it was obvious from a flyover in an Air National Guard rescue helicopter that many hundreds of acres of lush Sonoma County farmland--and with it, many homes--remained inundated on Wednesday.
Fruit trees, vineyards and field crops formed curious polka-dot patterns in the murky floodwater, which was so plentiful that the river was frequently indistinguishable from flooded areas. Still, cows grazed obliviously on some hilltops.
Telephone poles, shorn of their wires, stood like so many crucifixes in the muddy ocean that still covered large areas. Surprisingly, however, hard-working utility crews were able to keep to a minimum the interruption of telephone and electric service.
In Guerneville, Monte Rio and other riverfront towns, most homes and businesses remained underwater. In some cases, only a faint roof ridge line marked the location of a building.
By midafternoon, Monte Rio was still almost completely submerged, its landmark Quonset hut movie theater barely recognizable above the water.
Neighborhoods recovered from the flood were blanketed with ooze. Nearby, some cars, campers and delivery vans were still sitting in water up to their windows.
Rescue helicopters set down on parking lots, dead-end streets--any flat surface that remained above water. They were kept very busy.
"I tell you, these helicopter pilots, they're doing a fantastic job," said Frank Carli, glancing up at one of the hulking twin-rotor Chinooks as it glided over Guerneville. "Even when it was completely socked in here, they were landing and pulling people out."
Matt Wallace, an Air National Guard rescue diver, said he and his partner, Brian Trube, had been dropped into the racing river three times Wednesday to rescue people stranded on rooftops. People were instructed to wave or hang white sheets from their roofs when seeking rescue.
However, one man was overheard complaining to National Guard officials that a helicopter had turned away his family after rescuing a dog.
Still, there were many who refused to be chased out of town--even some who abandoned the first floors of their homes to the floodwaters and retreated upstairs. One such woman, Barbara Ash, rode into the newly dry section of Guerneville to stock up at a drug store that reopened shortly after the water backed out its front door.
"We're just gathering up some food and water for ourselves and to share with our neighbors," Ash said while issuing orders to her children.
"We have electricity; we have cable TV," she said, "and now we have something to eat and drink. Why leave?"