The flood of 2019 didn’t penetrate very far into Sebastopol, but it wreaked havoc in its wake nonetheless, swamping most of The Barlow shopping district, inundating a low-lying neighborhood on Flynn Street as well as Sebastopol’s low-income and homeless housing site, Park Village, and the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center on Morris Street.
The Sebastopol Fire Department performed several rescues from Flynn Street and Park Village, whisking whole families out of danger from the rising waters. Sebastopol Fire Chief Bill Braga called these “well-planned rescues.”
“They really weren’t life or death situations, but we did bring out the boat and they could be considered swift-water rescues, because the water was moving. The real good news is, despite the property damage, there were no serious injuries and no fatalities,” he said of this year’s flood. “And to that extent, things went very well.”
Sebastopol, like the towns west along the Russian River, is no stranger to flooding. Most old timers can remember when the waters of the laguna lapped at Main Street. This time, floodwaters didn’t even make it to Petaluma Avenue, peaking at the Rialto Theatre driveway on McKinley Street.
Flooding in The Barlow
Sebastopol’s exclusive shopping district, The Barlow, suffered some of the worst devastation, and the damage was directly related to where in The Barlow a business was located. Stores along the eastern edge, close to the laguna, like the elegant clothing store Tamarind, were completely inundated. Andrea Kenner, Tamarind’s owner, estimated her loss at about $150,000.
Further up McKinley, the water was lower but just as destructive. Jacki Wilson is the owner of Two Dog Creamery, an ice cream shop. On Friday morning, after the water receded, she stood in the muddy ruins of her store, looking shell-shocked.
“It’s hard to believe that four feet of water could do all this,” she said, gesturing at a large industrial refrigerator that the waters had picked up and dumped over on its side. “We can’t pick it up yet because it’s still full of floodwater.”
A few doors down, Gia Baiocchi stood blinking at the silt-covered remains of her shop, Nectary.
“I’m shocked,” she said. “It’s just so hard to believe.”
Two doors over, Village Bakery was a total loss, red tagged by the county. The owners declined to be interviewed for this article, but a post to their Instagram said it all:
“Never in a million years did Patrick and I believe we would be in the place we are today. We appreciate the outpouring of love and support our community has shown us over the last 48 hours. Yesterday we laid off 60 employees, and it broke our hearts. A business is only as good as its people, and it does take a village … our staff is our family in every way that counts. Village will be closed indefinitely until we are able to get back on our feet.”
One block further west on McKinley, Adele Stoll took stock of the damage that even a small amount of water — just one foot — could wreak. Her store, Adele Stoll, sold handbags, jewelry and housewares, all hand-made by Stoll.
“Out of all the businesses in the Barlow, I’m probably the luckiest,” she said, looking back on that morning a few days later.
She lost her stock and her materials in her studio, but her desk was set on cinderblocks, which the water didn’t budge, so she didn’t lose her computer.
Still as she gazed at the mess on Friday, she knew what to expect.
“I’ve had a lot of issues in my life that I’ve had to overcome so I knew instantaneously what this meant — the loss of business, the loss of my materials. I knew right away because, ironically, my parents had a store in Sebastopol when I was a young child, and it flooded.”
What was new to many other victims of the flood was strangely familiar to Stoll.
“I understood the way water wicks up the walls and how condensation can ruin everything that’s above the floodline. I knew that mold was the enemy. Any amount of water in your space ruins things,” she said.
The failure of The Barlow flood plan
In order to get a permit from the city of Sebastopol to build in a known flood plain, The Barlow created an elaborate flood mitigation plan that revolved around the installation of flood logs — large aluminum beams with compression gaskets and neoprene bands to create a seal — that were supposed to be installed when the water level in the Laguna de Santa Rosa reached a certain height.
It was supposed to be “a self-executing plan,” according to Sebastopol City Manager Larry McLaughlin, by which he meant, it was supposed unfold automatically as the floodwaters reached certain milestones.
The Barlow did a run-through of its plan on Dec. 1, 2012. It took 50 workers 11 hours to install all the flood logs throughout The Barlow. (You can see them at work in a video on YouTube called, “Did you know that The Barlow Project is located in a flood zone? Not to worry, we’re prepared…”) The video shows workers calmly installing flood logs under a bright blue sky in the middle of the day.
Conditions were considerably different at the end of February, when, late on Tuesday, Feb. 26, a smaller crew of workers went to work in the dark and driving rain, as the waters of the laguna rose quickly, first flooding Morris Street and then creeping foot by foot into the heart of The Barlow.
By morning, the corrugated steel buildings of The Barlow looked like a swamped Venetian fantasyland — strangely attractive from the outside, but a disaster inside the buildings. By Friday morning, when the tenants were first allowed back in, it was clear that the flood plan had failed.
“We don’t know why, but it looks like they were a bit late putting the flood prevention measures they’d planned into place,” said McLaughlin in the immediate aftermath of the flood.
For some, the logs were installed on time, but not high enough. “Our logs were three feet high,” said Two Dog Creamery’s Jacki Wilson. “Unfortunately, the water was four to five feet deep.”
Reached on Monday, McLaughlin was still surprised at how the disaster unfolded.
“The plan definitely should have worked,” he said. “I was here at the inception and when it was being developed. It was a well-developed plan, a practiced plan, that was supposed to automatically go into action when certain milestones were reached. The city will definitely be looking into what happened here.”
He didn’t want to speculate on what might have gone wrong.
“There’s a lot of hard feelings and some people have lost a lot of money. You don’t have to be a legal scholar to see that this could become a legal matter,” said McLaughlin, who is also the city attorney.
Some of The Barlow’s tenants hope it won’t come to that.
“I’d much rather look forward,” Adele Stoll said. “I don’t want The Barlow to be trashed because I want to continue to do business there in the future … The Barlow is a really special place, and it shouldn’t be defined by what happened on one day.”
“My mission is to make clear that this was an incredible place before, and it’s a special place now, even in the middle of this. My goal is to see that we’re able to pull together and find something positive and then move forward. We’ll be richer for the experience rather than having it break us down.”
Lori Austin, who owns an art gallery in The Barlow in the same block as Stoll, agrees.
Speaking of the tenants’ meetings that have happened thus far, Austin said, “Everybody has to vent and they’re upset, but what everyone is focusing on is, ‘How do we move forward? How do we get open as quickly as possible?’ That’s where our energy is going. Because we can talk about fault and blame all day, but it’s not going to help any of us right now to get open sooner, and that’s what we’re concentrating on.”
Austin said she is confident that the owners of The Barlow will pay for the flood damage to the businesses’ interiors. Barlow owner and developer Barney Aldridge wasn’t available for comment for this article, in part, he said, because he was busy working with multiple cleaning and flood remediation companies.
Buoyed by community support
Both Austin and Stoll say they’ve been touched by the reaction of both their neighbors in The Barlow and the community at large.
“The immediate response has been from places in the sections of The Barlow that are still functioning,” she said, mentioning Fern Bar, Woodfour and California Sisters, which were saved from the flood by being both raised and at the western edge of the complex. “From bringing us food to keep us going and to donating 20 percent of sales at Fern Bar, Lowell’s and Handline. California Sisters donated 40 percent of everything they sold this weekend. These are huge acts of generosity.”
Stoll said she has also been deeply touched by the generosity of far-flung friends in her social and business circles. Like many businesses in The Barlow, she has started a GoFundMe at the urging of her daughter and posted about the flooding over social media.
“My community really responded,” she said. “Friends from high school — a girl I knew in junior high made a really generous donation. That kind of stuff is so lovely.”
The woman who used to occupy Stoll’s space in The Barlow and now has a shop in Calistoga offered to sell Stoll’s merchandise in her store, The Mad Mod Shop.
“It’s those kind of gestures that really bring me to tears,” she said. “The disaster part I can deal with — it brings out my inner badass. The stuff that makes me weep is the generosity and the love.”
More love on the way
A fundraiser is being organized to support the businesses in The Barlow that were damaged in the flood. Sonoma West Times and News will print details for this event as soon as information becomes available.
In the meantime, several of the businesses have started GoFundMe’s:
• The Nectary has a GoFundMe to pay for “the up-front costs of replacing inventory and equipment.” They are also open as a pop-up inside Fern Bar, which escaped the flood.
• Zazu Restaurant & Farm has launched a GoFundMe to raise $50,000 to repair damage and help employees.
• Community Market also has a GoFundMe. They are requesting that patrons shop at the Community Market in Santa Rosa until the Sebastopol store reopens.
• Victorian Farmstead Meat Company has a GoFundMe and will be selling at farmers markets until the Sebastopol Community Market reopens.
Other GoFundMe’s include:
• Village Bakery
• Barrio Cocina Fresca
• The Farmer’s Wife
• Sushi Kosho
• Two Dog Night Creamery
• Crooked Goat
• Adele Stoll
• Circle of Hands