Rio Nido Waits

The mud could still slide, but a county plan is in the works

By Scarlett Chidgey

Pacific Sun, July 22-July 28, 1998

Amidst relentless El Niño storms and flooding this past winter came an unusual and unexpected enemy for Phyllis and Gary LaCombe. On February 6, mud and debris slid down the mountain above them and hit their house, while they where in it, on Upper Canyon Three Road in Rio Nido.

They have been out of their home since their evacuation six months ago. Even with the assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the LaCombes have encountered financial hardship: Gary LaCombe lost his job because his employer didn’t think he’d be able to make it to work. Viable options are scarce for the couple.

“I wouldn’t have moved back there even if they told me I could,” says Phyllis LaCombe. Now, their home has minimal value, a loan isn’t economically prudent and within a year their FEMA assistance will run out.

Shortly after the LaCombes and residents of Upper Canyon Three Road were evacuated, the county mandated the evacuation of over 100 homes in the area that could be endangered by a further slide. On April 1, these residents were allowed to return to their homes. Although no longer displaced, they face the threat of more material sliding down when the rain comes and the uncertainty of what will be done to prevent possible damage to their homes.

Sonoma County has developed a program that could give new hope to residents still struggling with a mortgage for a property to which they cannot return. And it may offer peace of mind to those who have returned to their homes, but worry about next winter. A $3.5 million plan has been proposed to FEMA, which includes a buy-out of 41 properties in the Upper Canyon Three area at pre-disaster fair market value.

The plan also provides for the county to remove the old temporary culvert system and lay a new one, which would consist of a 48-inch-wide pipe secured and buried in the mud, according to Jim Baker, information officer for the Office of Emergency Services (OES). The pipe would then catch all the rainwater, bypassing the mud and debris from the slide, and send it into the Russian River. The culvert system, meant to help protect the homes down the canyon, cannot be placed until after the land acquisition. But FEMA must approve the proposal for the county to be able to enact it.

Part of the reason that approval for the program takes so long, says Baker, is because FEMA and state OES policy concerning land acquisition has never before been developed and is still in the works. Baker is hopeful that the policy will be finalized within a month and the property buy-out and culvert system construction will be completed before the rain comes.

While back in her Willow Road home where she and husband, John Obertelli, have lived for 20 years, Sherrie Althouse syas, “I’m absolutely in support of [the county’s plan]. I have no reason not to see my neighbors bought out.”

But according to some residents, the county’s proposal is not as ideal as it seems. If FEMA approves the plan, the state and county are responsible for funding the remaining 25 percent. There has been no official statement from the state or county that they will not be able to match funds, but residents are still concerned that they will have accept a lower value for their properties. Phyllis LaCombe would still agree to a buy-out because she feels that 75 percent is better than nothing. But her husband, Gary, does not want to settle for less than the full pre-disaster fair market value.

Calling the county’s proposal a “science fiction project,” Canyon Three Road resident John Uniack does not think it’s the right answer. Instead, he suggests that the county remove the mud and debris leaving the area clear for more material should it slide down. He believes that some properties are not damaged or threatened by future slides, so to acquire all 41 properties is unnecessary. Also, he complains that the county never asked the residents for their input.

Baker says that there has not yet been an official discussion with the property owners asking if they would like to sell. However, the county cannot present owners with the proposal until it is approved by FEMA, he explains. Meanwhile, some Upper Canyon Three property owners will refuse to sell, according to Uniack and the LaCombes. Without a unanimous vote, the plan cannot be executed.

What happens if FEMA does not approve the proposal or even one homeowner does not agree to sell? Sherrie Althouse believes “it will be a small miracle if it is pulled off.”

So far, the county has not presented an alternative solution and winter is only a few months away. The 41 properties in the Upper Canyon Three area, the homes further down on Canyon Three, Willow, Hay and Bay roads and the residents of Rio Nido, fearful of the future, remain in limbo.

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