Flooded California towns still mostly cut off despite receding waters

(Reuters) – Low-lying communities along the swollen Russian River in Northern California wine country remained largely cut off by flooding on Thursday, even as waters began receding and sun peeked through after days of non-stop rain.

With water rising to rooftops and submerging cars as the river overflowed its banks, authorities in Sonoma County, about 70 miles (100 km) north of San Francisco, ordered 3,600 people to evacuate on Tuesday.

Some people who stayed behind used kayaks to traverse flooded streets. By Thursday, National Guard troops, along with state and local responders, had used high water vehicles to rescue nearly 60 people, Sonoma County officials said.

California Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday issued an emergency declaration for five Northern California counties to help them recover from the flooding. Newsom had previously declared an emergency for 21 counties across the state due to heavy storms.

A National Weather Service flood warning remained in effect for the rain-soaked area on Thursday and at least 20 roads in the Russian River valley, including sections of two highways, were still closed, authorities said.

Three thousand properties in the area have reported flood damage to authorities, according to local officials.

The towns of Rio Nido, Guerneville, Monte Rio and Cazadero are still completely inaccessible, according to the Sonoma County emergency operations center.

And with the sun breaking through, authorities face a new problem – keeping people safe as they try to return home, said Ann DuBay, a spokeswoman for the operations center.

“It’s still in flood stage, it’s still very dangerous out there,” DuBay said, adding that authorities do not know when the four communities will become accessible.

Guerneville, home to more than 4,500 people, is the largest town in the area still cut off.

“You cannot get into or out of town. All roads leading to the community are flooded,” Sonoma County Sheriff’s office tweeted on Wednesday, referring to Guerneville.

The Russian River reached its highest point late on Wednesday, cresting at 45 ft (13.7 m). The river was expected to drop below flood levels early on Friday and then fall by another 15 ft (4.6 m), said NWS hydrologist Peter Fickenscher.

The service predicts more rain will fall late on Friday, but it is not expected to cause further flooding.

Reporting by Katharine Jackson; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Richard Chang and Bill Berkrot

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