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Authorities Plan To Lift Russian River Evacuations Friday At Noon

SONOMA COUNTY (CBS SF/AP) -- The Sonoma County Sheriff's office announced Thursday evening that authorities would try to lift the evacuation order for residents of communities along the Russian River on Friday.

The sheriff's department announced that officials planned to lift the evacuations at about noon on March 1. Crews will be clearing roads and assessing damage Friday morning. Authorities will be opening the town to residents only and identification will be required to enter, the sheriff's department said.

According to the announcement, the general public will be allowed into the evacuated areas on Saturday morning.

Earlier Thursday, authorities confirmed a father of three has drowned in Ferndale as he attempted to reach his children who were trapped inside the family home by the flood waters of the Eel River.

The Humboldt Sheriff's Office said in a statement Thursday that deputies were sent Wednesday night to the house in Ferndale. The man was walking to his home from a barn through up to 5 feet of water when he was carried away by the fast-moving current.

Three people tried to reach the man by driving a tractor through the floodwaters, but the tractor stalled and they couldn't get to him in time. Authorities found his body Thursday. His name has not been made public.

The sheriff office said deputies in a boat rescued the three people from the tractor and the children from the home.

Swollen by a steady rainstorm, the National Weather Service said the Eel River crested at nearly 25 feet late Wednesday -- about 5 feet over flood stage.

Meanwhile, some 200 miles to the south, the Russian River in Sonoma County has crested and an estimated 3,000 structures remain inundated by the flood waters.

For Hollydale resident Dillon Saltzer and his family, it has been a long three days stranded inside their home.

"Yeah, when you saw me coming out, it was the first time that I stepped out," said Saltzer. "Honestly the biggest thing to fight in the flood is just the boredom out here."

It wasn't until Thursday afternoon that the water level dropped low enough that he could wade through the street and survey the damage in his neighborhood along the Russian River.

"I know some houses, it's definitely going to be worse than others," explained Saltzer. "You really never know until the water gets down. Other people who aren't as familiar with the area, 'cause we have a lot of new neighbors. I don't know how much time they had to get stuff out."

But while the water was receding, many roads are still only passable by boat. Many of the evacuated residents spent another day waiting to get back to their homes.

"Yeah, just about the same as the fires. Except we get to go back and clean it up," said an evacuee who gave his name as Christian.

Where the water has receded, the clean-up is already underway, not just in people's homes and businesses, but also along just about every road that flooded.

Local residents with experience said they could not remember a more destructive flood.

"It definitely was the worst one out of all of them. Water came up super fast, so it's definitely the fastest I've ever seen. But I've only been out here 20 years," said Saltzer.

Early Thursday afternoon, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared an emergency for five northern counties due to the heavy storm led to the worst flooding in 20 years in one county.

Newsom said Thursday the emergency proclamation is for the Northern California counties of Amador, Glenn, Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma, where hundreds were marooned. An emergency was declared in a total of 21 counties in the state.

The governor says the emergency declaration directs state officials to immediately request federal assistance to help communities recover from flooding, mudslides and damage to critical infrastructure.

According to the National Weather Service, the river at Guerneville crested at 45.38 feet late Thursday night. As of 10 a.m., the river was at 43.5 feet, still considered major flood stage.

Floodwaters are not expected to recede below flood stage of 32 feet until early Friday morning.

The town of Guerneville remained cut off to vehicles Thursday, as roads to the community remain flooded. Sheriff's officials said Thursday morning that the town may not be accessible by road for 24 to 48 hours.

On Thursday, the Sonoma County Sheriff's office was coordinating with the National Guard and various fire agencies from Graton Fire Department headquarters.

Crews are ready to launch into rescue mode if and when it warrants it.

A mandatory evacuation order is still in effect for several towns across Sonoma County. Officials won't be able to lift the order until the water below the Russian River flood stage at 32 feet.

"Things were really slow last night, which is a good thing, because that means people were safe," said Misti Harris with the Sonoma County Sheriff's office.

Bringing all these organizations together happens quickly, especially given their experience with natural disasters.

"For those of us who went through the fires, this is kind of an old hat," said Harris. "So things come together, I think, quickly. We work together very well. We know the drill for what re-population looks like."

Harris said the tough part will be telling residents to remain patient.

"After a flood of this nature, you're concerned about debris in the roadway, fallen trees, downed power lines, septic systems that may or may not be functional or have damage. And also drinking water," explained Harris.

The river frequently floods in rainy weather but it had not reached that level in 25 years. The estimated 2,000 inundated buildings were mainly in and around the community of Guerneville, Sonoma County spokesperson Briana Khan told The Associated Press.

"Guerneville has essentially become an island," Khan said. The nearby town of Monte Rio also was isolated when roads leading to it were swamped.

No injuries were reported in the Guerneville area and by Wednesday night the rain had eased, but about 3,500 people in two dozen river communities remained under evacuation orders.

In addition, two sewage treatment plants were not working, leading to concerns about potential sewage spills, she added.

According to the Sonoma County sheriff, dispatchers reported a "quiet night" in the flood zone and that there were no calls for rescues in Guerneville overnight.

Elsewhere in Sonoma County, floodwaters were also receding in Sebastopol, where several homes and businesses have sustained significant damage. Flooding has also prompted the closure of Highway 12.

As the flood waters from the Laguna de Santa Rosa recede Thursday afternoon, the line of debris on the ground was a reminder of just how high it got.

At the heart of the flood damage in Sebastopol is the Barlow shopping district. The Community Market is just one of a number of businesses in the district.

"It got to about 4-5 inches, so that was pretty good. Everybody expected it to be about knee deep. So we're pretty happy with that," said Community Market worker Minkoff Timpe.

Despite warnings of fresh water mixing with sewage, folks were out in kayaks, canoes and paddleboards out to see their city from a different angle. For some in Sebastopol, the flood did provide something besides unwanted water: quiet.

"This is Highway 12 that I'm standing on. There's usually a thousand cars starting at about 3 p.m. using this thoroughfare. It's kinda quiet and everyone's walking around," said Stessa Thompson.

Officers patrolling the area looking for people who refused to leave said several swift water rescues were made.

© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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