Dad battles floodwaters to save 3 kids, but current sweeps him away, Calif. cops say

Rescuers have found the body of a father swept away by Northern California flooding as he tried fording neck-deep waters to rescue his children, Humboldt County deputies said.

The man had been trying to reach the three kids — a 12-year-old and two children under 4 — who were trapped in their Ferndale home as it was engulfed by waters from the rising Eel River, the Associated Press reports. Heavy rains have inundated California this week, triggering the floods.

Humboldt deputies discovered the man dead on Thursday morning following a failed rescue attempt Wednesday, the sheriff’s office said in a news release. Authorities have not released the man’s name.

The sheriff’s office, volunteer firefighters and the U.S. Coast Guard launched the rescue around 8:20 p.m. Wednesday night, after deputies were called to the home on reports that a man had been “overtaken by flood waters” — and that three people who had tried to rescue him were stuck in a tractor, which stalled in high waters before they could get to the drowning man, the sheriff’s office said.

The person who called dispatchers said the man had tried to wade through 4- to 5-foot flood waters to get from a barn to the cut-off home around 7 p.m., but he “became distressed by the fast-moving current,” deputies said.

Two adults and one juvenile were in the tractor that tried to rescue him, and all three were saved themselves in a sheriff’s office jet boat and taken to safety, the sheriff’s office said. The children in the home surrounded by floodwaters were also rescued, deputies said.

But deputies said they had to call off the search for the man carried away by the current around 11 p.m. because of “dangerous conditions.”

The National Weather Service said the rainstorms pounding Humboldt County filled the Eel River to 25 feet by Wednesday, meaning it was 5 feet above flood stage, CBS reports. Flooding in the area has closed roads and forced evacuations, the Eureka Times-Standard reports.

“There is flooding everywhere keeping roads closed and we are doing our best to keep up and to make sure people know which roads are closed and which are open,” Humboldt County Public Works Director Tom Mattson said, according to the Times-Standard. “The Ferndale plain is the worst.”

Locals elsewhere along the Eel River said the fast-rising waters were a surprise, the newspaper reports.

“We were watching the weather and the water levels and all of a sudden the level jumped,” Eliza Barrett said, according to the Times-Standard. “It came up so fast and that was shocking.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles to the south, waters from rainstorms turned Guerneville and Monte Rio in Sonoma County into virtual islands, the Associated Press reports. That flooding reached its peak Wednesday when the Russian River crested at 46 feet or higher, according to AP, leaving roughly 2,000 buildings soaked.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared an emergency Thursday in Sonoma County, as well as in storm-damaged Amador, Glenn, Lake and Mendocino Counties. A press release from the governor’s office announcing the emergency said the declaration aimed to “help communities respond to and recover from dangerous flooding, mudslides and damage to critical infrastructure” as the severe storms continue.

Deputies said the Humboldt County Coroner’s Office will release the Ferndale man’s name after his family has been notified of his death.

Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.