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Bay Area residents are preparing for the Russian River to flood again early next week


Forecasters predict the Russian River will begin overflowing its banks early next week, with more heavy storms on the horizon for Northern California. From member station KQED, Danielle Venton reports on how people who live in flood-prone areas are preparing.

DANIELLE VENTON, BYLINE: Rain falls on Kristen Thurman's home, right on the banks of the Russian River in the town of Monte Rio.

KRISTEN THURMAN: Please come on in.

VENTON: Flood prep for her is about having food on hand and getting organized.

THURMAN: We right now are in the process of being prepared to do a quick emptying of that basement if we see, indeed, that it's going to come. This means getting things up.

VENTON: She and her husband Dan are pros at this by now. They've lived in this house for 40 years.

THURMAN: For those of us who've been through it a long time, it's just a tedious, stressful, tiresome but incredibly awesome experience just watching the river.

VENTON: They were in this house during the worst flood on record here in Sonoma County. The year was 1986.

THURMAN: And the water came up to one level and then stayed there for about a week. And then storms hit, and it just came up so fast. It was incredible. And it was about three feet in this house. We stayed on the second floor for about four days - and just stayed there.

VENTON: Kristen's husband Dan would pull on waders and go downstairs to get cans of food from the kitchen. One storm hit after another, similar to the chain of atmospheric rivers now stacked up out in the Pacific Ocean and heading toward the West Coast.

THURMAN: We had been here a few years, and I was pregnant. And we had a 3-year-old. And it was the famous Valentine's flood, now they call it, because it was over Valentine's weekend.

VENTON: They learned a lot about what to expect and bought flood insurance. The next bad deluge was in 1995. After that, Kristen and Dan took out a second mortgage to elevate their living space by eight feet. The most costly storm damage along the West Coast tends to cluster along the Russian River, mostly due to the river overflowing its banks.

TIM MILLER: But we're kind of glued to the various monitors and river monitors.

VENTON: Tim Miller is executive director of West County Community Services. Exactly what level the flood-prone Russian River peaks at determines who is affected and where.

MILLER: Everybody knows what floods at what foot out here.

VENTON: The forecast for Monday predicts many roads will be impassable. So Miller's organization has already shut down its senior center and mental health counseling center, although they're still offering services over the phone. And Miller is evaluating whether those in the homeless shelter need to be bused to higher ground. Additionally, outreach workers have spent days walking creeks and riverbeds speaking to the unhoused who live there.

MILLER: Getting people to move their encampments from 25 feet in the riverbed either into our shelter or just higher up so they're not taken away by the flood.

VENTON: Overall, while Miller is busy getting ready, he's not scared.

MILLER: People out here are generally prepared. They've gone through this many, many times.

VENTON: Like resident Kristen Thurman, who volunteers with West County Community Services. She cooks meals for the nearby homeless shelter. She and Dan are most worried about people who've recently moved to or started businesses in the area.

THURMAN: They don't know. They don't know what's coming. I wish that we had more education on what it means to live on a flooding river.

VENTON: In fact, they've wondered if they should run seminars about living with floods to help others prepare. But for now, they're prepping their basement, checking in with neighbors, hunkering down and hoping for the best.

For NPR News, I'm Danielle Venton in Monte Rio, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Venton (KQED)