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Floods Take a Psychological Toll : Victims' Lives Centered Around Storms and Cleaning Up

March 20, 1986|GARY LIBMAN

PETALUMA, Calif. — When Frances Bowman woke to heavy rain at 3:30 a.m. recently, she began the drill she has learned so well during three floods and countless evacuations of her home within the last five years.

The curly-haired, 5-foot housewife told her husband to get dressed and go look at the Petaluma River behind their four-bedroom house.

When Jim Bowman returned and reported that the muddy river was rising fast, she began lifting important papers to high shelves and wrapping plastic bags around clothes. Then she paced, wondering whether she, her husband and her son Michael, 17, should flee.

Although the river subsided, Frances and Jim Bowman felt tired and edgy the next morning, she said. They knew they were better off than the morning of Feb. 14, when 18 inches of water covered their floor during massive Northern California floods. And they felt decidedly luckier than they did the first time they were deluged, in January, 1982, when 5 1/2 feet of water lapped at the top of their living room windows.

Still, Frances Bowman, 47, said worrying about floods now prevents her from sleeping during the rain. And the constant threat of flooding to their home has also hurt her relationship with her husband.

" . . . We don't have any enjoyable times," she said. "It's either talking about this damn river . . . or how we're going to get out of here (move), or where are we going to get the money for (repairs). Our whole life is centered around this."

About 15 miles northwest, in the tree-lined hills of Forestville, Anne Fox, 33, said she has suffered a similar reaction to a flood-induced mud slide at her new home.

Difficulty Sleeping

Four weeks after the Feb. 17 slide knocked in her kitchen wall, severed her deck and washed two cars down a hill to destruction, she said the rain frightens her and that she, too, has difficulty sleeping.

Her machinist husband, Rob, 34, contemplating the two-story, redwood home he spent four years building, said he didn't know if they could stay there much longer "unless someone can make us feel awfully secure that nothing can happen again."

The floods affecting the families devastated much of Northern California in February and early March. A state agency reported that rains and rampaging rivers killed 12 people, destroyed 1,380 homes and caused an estimated $374 million in damage.

Gov. George Deukmejian signed a $115-million relief bill to aid the victims and said that President Reagan declared residents of 33 counties eligible for federal temporary housing, low-interest loans and individual and family grants.

In the month following the destruction, however, the Bowmans and Foxes still are waiting to hear from government, insurance and banking representatives to learn what aid they might qualify for.

The Bowmans are anticipating an insurance adjuster's settlement proposal, while the uninsured Fox family was hoping for a quick decision by their bank on a plan to delay mortgage payments. Otherwise, the Foxes risk foreclosure on the dream home they have occupied for only one year.

The Bowmans and their neighbors sued the City of Petaluma and Sonoma County in 1982, alleging that local construction increases runoff into the river and that river bridges cause the water to back up during storms. The suit has not come to trial.

So the Bowmans remain ensconsed on a flood way, an area most susceptible to water during a flood, according to federal designation.

Federal regulations from the late 1960s and early 1970s probably would have prevented construction of their home today, but the rules didn't exist when the house was built in 1960.

Jim Bowman said the real estate agent who sold him the home in 1973 never mentioned the possibility of flooding.

Flood After Flood

Each flood leaves the house in disrepair, said the Bowmans. After the most recent flood, they tore paneling off the bottom four feet of their walls, exposing the 2x4s in the frame, to see whether the insulation was wet and needed replacing. They removed wet rugs and pushed much of their ruined furniture into a corner of their tilted floor.

Seated next to his wife on a dank living room couch, Jim Bowman, 43, said that the roaring river behind their home washed away so much soil that the back of the house slipped six inches below the front.

Bowman said he wanted to move his family out of the house, in part to lessen the strain that developed as a result of the flooding.

Earning about $11 an hour as a civilian carpenter for the Army, however, Bowman worried that unless he sold the house, he would not be able to afford the $280-a-month mortgage and a potential monthly rent of $750 for an apartment.

The Fox family suffered similar fears. Rob Fox, a bearded 6-foot-5-inch machinist, his wife, Anne, who stands 6-feet-2, and their year-old daughter, Amanda, were just starting to enjoy the home built especially for their needs.

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