My good friend Tom, the weatherman for channel 13 in Sacramento, sent me email recently warning me that this week would be a bad time to go kayaking. He went on to predict that this series of storms was going to be as bad as the ones in January, with terrible flooding. He told me this on Saturday, and I was curious to note that the weather reports on the news radio stations did not predict weather this bad until it was already happening. So I made no plans to go kayaking, but as you will soon read, I almost went boating in my car.
I was working in Nacasio Wednesday when the first storm of the series hit the area. My intention was to leave reasonably early (by 9:00pm?) and get home before midnight. But things always come up at the last minute, and I was still trying to configure a WWW reader (NetScape) when the power went off at around 11:00pm. I was on the phone with someone for advice, and on the modem which lost power and hung up. With no power to work on computers any more, I finally started home. Although I was driving the little Honda CRX, I decided to take the back way home, at least as far a Petaluma. At first it was fun: The rain was coming down in really big drops that sparkled in the headlights unlike normal rain. The strong wind was driving the rain almost sideways. There were branches down on the road in lots of places to dodge around. If a bigger branch or small tree fell across the road, I had a bucksaw in my emergency kit to clear the way. In Petaluma I topped out my gas tank, and forgot to consider the road conditions and headed home the usual back way through Valley Forge. There's a flat valley area called Two Rock with lots of cattle or dairy ranches, and the water often overflows the road there. I hit one of these flooded areas before I had time to slow down much and got a bit of a scare. I slowed down for the next one, and the only scare was wondering if it was going to get any deeper. The road seemed to clear up, and my speed started to creep up. With the wind and rain blowing on the outside, and moisture condensing on the inside, I didn't see the next flood coming, and hit 10 inches of water at maybe 40 miles an hour. Water roared up all around me and blocked my vision completely. The car slowed VERY FAST and everything inside slammed forwards. It felt like the nose of the car turned down and the rear rose up off the ground. The seat-belt held me down very comfortably, but I though "Now you've done it, this is where you loose this car". The engine died, and in the headlights, I thought I saw huge volumes of steam coming out from under the engine compartment. I came to a stop in 10 inches of water, that lapped and banged under the car, but didn't pile up high enough to start leaking in the doors (yet). With the water rumbling under the car, the rain drumming down on top, and the wind blowing around, I could not even hear if the engine cranked when I tried to start it. But I watched the headlights dimming.
This is when I most strongly recalled that my battery has been sorely abused, has not been holding a charge, and I have been meaning to get a new one. I turned on my emergency flashers, turned off the headlights, and also recalled that it was almost 1:00am. On every previous wet spot in the road, there had been two cars coming the other way with their high beams on, moving slow, and preventing me from being able to see what I was getting into. Now, when I needed other cars around, the road was empty and dark forever in both directions. I sat there for quite a while, trying to hear the engine start from time to time, sticking my head out the window to get drenched and look at the level of the water. Every time I opened a window, the smell of the flood came in: it smelled like an open sewer from washing all the cow shit off the surrounding ranges. I have rain gear, and the container for my emergency kit is a small backpack. I started re-organizing the kit and taking out the things I wouldn't need for a long wet walk. If I left the car here in the middle of the road, it would very likely get washed off later this evening, so the car and everything left behind would probably be a total loss. Of course I would try to push the car out of the water, but I wasn't sure I'd be able to get it to move. While I was deciding whether or not to take my laptop in or out of it's carrying case, headlights finally drove up behind me. I shined a flashlight at them, and without stopping to ask, the guy driving this pickup truck assumed that I would want to get pushed out of the water, and nosed up behind me. When he pushed me to higher ground, I pulled over, and got out to thank him. His name is Bob, he lives in Bodega Bay. I was happy to have the car somewhere where it would not be washed away, but he was willing to try to get me started again. We looked at giving me a push, but his bumper was too high: it would ride up over mine and smash up the back of the car. He came around front and we hooked up his chain. In second gear, he pulled me forward, and after a while, the engine started making pitiful noises, and I could slack the chain by pressing down the accelerator. I flashed my lights at him and we pulled over to remove the chains. My engine was running really rough, and idling so low that it was in danger of dying. Months later I asked my mechanic to check for flood damage while tuning up the car. He was astounded to find a high-water mud line INSIDE the distributor! When we got going again, I followed Bob through a few more floods across the road and flashed thank you at him when I turned off at the Freestone-Valley Ford Road.
But only a mile up this road, was another flood, that wasn't moving very fast, but I could not see how deep it was. I would have tried going through it, but there was another car a hundred meters ahead that had apparently been picked up by the water and floated into the ditch, where it sank tilted over in the deeper water on the side of the road. There but for the grace of Bob go I. This car's parking lights were still on, and I could see what might have been a dome light, and might have been movement inside. I drove a little closer, moved to the high side of the road, and considered getting out and making sure nobody was stuck in there. I had gotten my rescue, this may be my opportunity to pass the favor along. But if I took my foot off the accelerator pedal, my engine will die, and it might not start up again. While I was trying to decide if the movement I saw was just shadows from my own headlights, my engine died and made the choice for me. Well, if I get stuck here, at least my car is salvageable, I can stand to sleep in the car tonight. I took off my shoes and waded off to check the other car for passengers. This way, I also got to check the depth of the water by measuring it with my legs. The car was empty of people, but had a lot of muddy water on the downslope side. There was a canvas bag of stuff jammed up against the back window in hopes of keeping it out of the water: Successful so far. It was a new car, a curvaceous white little sporty car. Probably as light as my little car, which would also float away in this water which was probably a foot and a half deep, and moving faster here than it had looked from a distance.
When I cranked my car, it made pitiful noises, and almost started on one cylinder. On the second try, that one cylinder managed to keep the engine turning over very slowly, like a steam engine. Thump... thump.. thump... thump. I pressed the pedal down very slowly and the time between thumps got longer. This is not good, it means the engine is probably a little flooded, so I slowly raised the pedal. Thump... thumpthump thumpthumpthump ZOOM! The engine started! Just like the scene in "The Flight of the Phoenix" (staring Jimmy Stewart)! I turned around and drove the long way around through the town of Bodega. I soon passed by the other end of the Freestone-Valley Forge road. I no longer wanted to get home and out of the storm as soon as possible. I just wanted to get there no matter how long it took. I considered turning right at Freestone and staying at my mom's house, only a few miles away. But what the heck: I'll keep going and see how close to home I can get before I fall back on that option. Just before Occidental, there was a tree across the road, but someone had already cut a chunk of it out to drive through. Just before Monte Rio, there was a mudslide across the road, but it was well rutted from previous cars driving over it, and I forged on. I turned left onto the Moscow road, which is the long way around to get across the river, but the short way has some low spots that flood easily. I went through a few more minor flooded areas of road, but none of them more than a few inches deep. I made it home by 2:00am, and parked the car facing downhill so I could get it started one way or another next time. I had left Bob and Cherie "at work" 3 hours ago, and knew they would still be up, trying to get work done with or without power. They have kidded me that sea kayaking was a dangerous sport, I called them to inform them that I had made it home, and to tell them that just driving home seemed like a more dangerous sport today than kayaking!
The storm continued through the night and although it wasn't raining in the morning, the wind kept up strong half the day. After noon, I started setting up to hook my 2200 watt propane generator up to run the refrigerator and freezer for a few hours. In the big flood in 1987, we were without power for 7 days, so I bought a small generator and upgraded my propane tank to 300 gallons. We have used it only a few times, just for the refrigerators, by running extension cords around the house and back in. This time I tried hooking it into the house wiring. I turned off the main, and built a male-male extension cord to plug the generator into the power outlet under the house. Driving the outlet backwards made a few lights come on, and it was neat walking around being able to turn lights on anywhere as if nothing was wrong. But some of the lights didn't work, the refrigerator didn't work, the freezer wasn't on, and the computers upstairs didn't have power either. I recalled that the breaker box connects every other breaker to the opposite side of the 220 volts that comes in from the power lines. I had only powered up half of the house, and even though I should have had a 50% chance of getting each outlet to work, NONE of the outlets that I needed today were powered up. I recalled that we used to have a 220v pump under the house, which had been replaced by a 110volt one, and the 220v wiring was still there, and close to the generator. The wire was long enough to reach the generator, so I started making an adapter. At first I was going to hook both sides of the 220v up to the hot wire on one end of my male-male adapter. This would short both sides of the house together, and allow the generator to run everything. It would also get me in a lot of trouble if I forgot and left it that way when power was restored and I turned the main back on. But then I noticed that the generator had two separate breakers for it's two 110v outlets. If I hooked half of the house up to each of these, I'd be safer, and I'd probably be less likely to blow one of the breakers. And, I had the right number of 110v plugs to do the job, by using both halves of my male-male extension cord. A few wire nuts, start the engine, and I was in business!
I left everything non essential turned off, checked that the refrigerator and freezer were running, and walked around the house turning on only one light at a time. I plugged in my laptop to charge its batteries. I turned on the UPS (Un-interruptable Power Supply) to charge its batteries. The generator took it all in stride. The UPS even liked the power from the generator, which surprised me: It is very finicky about the power from the electric company, often turning itself on for a few minutes and off again for no apparent reason. I turned on my server computer, which has a modem on it, and a monochrome monitor that might work. The generator kept going! Of course no way am I turning on a color monitor, a laser printer, a TV or, Bob forbid, a microwave oven. The monochrome monitor on the server was unhappy, but I moved its power cord from a power controller outlet to a cleaner outlet directly off the UPS, and it settled down and became readable. I called out, logged onto my account at Sonoma State, and got on the air! I answered an email message of Marty's, which she got immediately, and replied with the assumption that the power company must have fixed the lines already. I told her the short version of this story.
I ran the generator for two hours to cool down the freezers. At the end of that time, I had only enough charge in both laptop batteries for 3 more hours of computing, and probably a few more hours in the UPS which I didn't completely exhaust. I used kerosene lamps when it got dark and heated the house with the wood stove. At 5:30pm I tried starting up my poor abused car. IT started OK, but still ran rough. I figured there was water in some electrical places, and driving it would warm them up and help clear up the problem. I drove to meet my mom, who also didn't have power, and we went into Sebastopol to try out the new Thai restaurant. Boy, this is really roughing it. Life is sure tough out here in the remote country with no services available in bad weather. Actually, I wasn't all that pleased with the restaurant. The wantons in the wanton soup were pink in the middle, and that didn't seem like a good idea with pork filling. I though they also had a faint freezer burn flavor to them. The Phad Thai Noodles had that same taste to them. Perhaps their power had been off all morning and they were feeding us the stuff that had thawed too much in the freezer. Mom was happy with dinner, so perhaps I just had freezer problems on the brain. The dessert menu had Rambutan on it, a fruit that we loved in Singapore and which is hard to get in the US. But they were all out and we had to settle for lychee nuts.