Written by: Diana Hembree

Residents of Guerneville, California had experienced floods before, but this was the worst many had ever seen.

In late February 2019, the small Russian River town was overrun by floodwaters almost overnight. More than 24 hours of heavy rain had caused the river to overflow its banks, inundating 3,000 homes and 75 percent of the downtown. An antique store near the river was flooded up to its gutters, streets had turned into canals, and groups of National Guards drove high-water trucks and rowed through the town in rafts rescuing people who hadn’t heeded the evacuation order.

Like other programs serving western Sonoma County, West County Health Centers (WCHC) was hard hit. Miraculously, WCHC’s two offices in town were located on the few downtown streets spared by the rising waters, but the flooded streets, toxic water and mud and overall chaos made it impossible to work in them. While clinic staff worked overtime to figure out how to care for Guerneville residents who were ill or injured, most of whom were sent to nearby Sebastopol, clinic outreach worker Vanessa Woodbyrne and others were on an urgent mission to locate the town’s homeless. The Sonoma County sheriff’s department had ordered all residents living by the river to evacuate, citing life-threatening danger, but it wasn’t clear where – or whether – everyone had left. The homeless encampments, which were located along the Russian River, were now underwater.

Fortunately, WCHC had a new way to check on those patients. Just a month earlier, WCHC had successfully been set up for its online geo-mapping survey of the homeless encampments, which nearly all the residents had participated in. Survey123, as it was called, proved enormously valuable in locating people from the homeless encampments, according to Kathleen Figoni, WCHC’s innovation program manager. The National Guard had been sent in to evacuate the patients in its Healthcare for the Homeless (HCH) program, and West County employees were able to overlay the flood map with the coordinates of the encampments to locate them.

WCHC outreach worker Vanessa Woodbyrne doing Survey123 at a HCH encampment on the Russian River.

“Once we knew that the National Guard had taken a homeless resident to a given shelter, we knew where others they camped with were taken there, too,” Figoni said. When the clinic’s RN and licensed clinical social workers visited the shelters, they were able to identify the HCH patients and use geo-mapping to confirm that all the previously identified patients had successfully evacuated the area. In addition, knowing where their HCH patients had been evacuated made it easier for the clinic outreach team to drop off medications. Since the clinic had been testing this technology the month the Russian River flooded, being able to use the geo-mapping tool to quickly locate the program’s homeless patients was an unexpected boon — and a proof of concept that the technology was working.