Chainsaws, generators and beer: Amid dayslong power outage, Santa Cruz Mountains community perseveres

Lifelong Boulder Creek resident John Kornher poses in front of his generator-powered cat shelter on Highway 9.
Lifelong Boulder Creek resident John Kornher poses in front of his generator-powered cat shelter on Highway 9.
(Christopher Neely / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The unrelenting deluge battering the Santa Cruz Mountains left hundreds in Boulder Creek without power for days. Although admittedly challenging, it’s nothing the mountain community hasn’t seen before.

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As night descended in the Santa Cruz Mountains community of Boulder Creek on Friday, the line of cars at American Gasoline spilled out onto the roads.

Instead of car tanks, however, much of the gas pumped at the corner station filled countless handheld canisters. One cashier at the Wild Roots Market next door remarked that the typically quiet gas station had hosted a steady stream of cars for days. People needed gasoline to power their generators for what would be the third consecutive night without electricity since the lights went out Wednesday. Although it would return for most residents on Saturday, dozens in Boulder Creek would remain without electricity as another storm rolled through the region.

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Lifelong resident John Kornher, gas can in hand, weaved his way through the line of cars on a bicycle, his long, tan peacoat nearly dragging along the wet pavement. Kornher’s grizzled appearance, marked by a thick beard and brown hair tied back tightly to his head, belied a warm and friendly demeanor. He called everyone, even strangers, “neighbor.”

With darkness now firmly upon the mountains, Kornher pulled up to Kitten Kornher Rescue, a cat shelter he and his wife run, and one of the few illuminated storefronts along Boulder Creek’s stretch of Highway 9 — the community’s central commercial thoroughfare. He opened one of two generators and flipped the gas can upside down.

“I’m kind of used to it, but it’s been years and years and years since we had the power go out for more than a day,” Kornher said. “We had to sleep here yesterday [at Kitten Kornher] because we live up Bear Creek Road and it was closed. If we get stuck at home, there is no one who can come and take care of the cats.”

Lines at American Gasoline in Boulder Creek.
Lines at American Gasoline in Boulder Creek regularly spilled out onto the road during the power outage as locals lined up to for gas to fuel their generators.
(Christopher Neely / Lookout Santa Cruz)

More storms are forecast to bring heavy rain to Boulder Creek and the Santa Cruz Mountains through Tuesday. The seemingly eternal rain that has pounded the region for more than a week reminds Kornher of the 1982 storms that summoned damaging floods upon many mountain communities. Kornher remembers walking through his childhood home with his mother in ankle-deep water.

“I remember coming out into the living room and there was, like, a creek running through our house with rocks and sticks and twigs and everything,” Kornher said. “That, I think, is what is about to happen.”

The unrelenting weather has kept the region soaked since New Year’s Eve, damaging homes, closing roads and putting the community through the ringer, with still more to come. Yet the people of this scrappy and proud mountain town have rallied around each other to keep the community intact.

A certain kind of neighborliness

One thing to understand about the Boulder Creek community is that the people pride themselves on neighborliness, or what longtime resident Kevin Foster calls the “cowboy way.”

Foster runs the Facebook group Boulder Creek Neighbors, where the rules are simple: Be positive, neighborly and helpful. No nastiness. The F-bomb will get you booted immediately.

“If you wouldn’t say it to your grandma, child or parent or at work, church or in large crowds — then don’t say it in here,” the group’s “About” page reads.

Over the past week, the Boulder Creek Neighbors page has acted as a sort of Storm HQ, where neighbors share updates, discuss Pacific Gas and Electric outages and road-closure rumors, and ask for and offer help. In one video shared from his home office, Foster, seated with a live owl named Zeus perched on his right shoulder —a typical accoutrement in Foster’s videos — offered useful tips on electric generators.

A Texas native and retired rodeo clown/bullfighter who could double as a Sam Elliot impersonator, Foster coordinates the neighborhood’s emergency response team and is a go-to voice of reason and all-around handyman for neighbors during times like these. Over the past week, he has helped replace the wind-damaged siding on a neighbor’s home, which prevented leaks; single-handedly chainsawed through trees blocking another neighbor’s driveway; patched three roofs and helped some start their generators. He’s asked for no compensation, only donations to the Native Animal Rescue of Santa Cruz County.

“My goal is to be as positive, helpful or neighborly as possible,” Foster said Sunday night, just as he was arriving home from helping rebuild a neighbor’s fence that was damaged by a fallen oak tree. “You do good deeds and good deeds come back to you.”

Light amid the darkness

As the community settled into another evening without electricity Friday night, the stillness of Boulder Creek’s darkened main street was interrupted by a cacophonous chorus of gas-powered generators scattered along the sidewalk, as well as the flashing lights from a sudden and rapidly growing presence of police, fire and ambulance vehicles.

A male pedestrian was struck by a driver. About a dozen emergency vehicles arrived to temporarily shut down the dark road.

Roughly 200 yards away, accompanied by a barefoot woman with baggy corduroy pants, a bearded man with a dimmed headlamp stood outside Geist Builders Group, videotaping the scene. He said he was doing office work, illuminated by his headlamp, but became distracted by the blue and red lights flashing into his otherwise dark office.

Dozens of emergency responders arrived Friday to shut down Highway 9 after a pedestrian was struck by a vehicle.
Dozens of emergency responders arrived Friday to shut down Highway 9 after a pedestrian was struck by a vehicle.
(Christopher Neely / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A woman in a white hat approached the pair on the sidewalk. “A person was hit by a car,” she told them. “They’re dragging him into the ambulance right now.”

According to a spokesperson with the California Highway Patrol, the male pedestrian was struck by a female driving a Toyota. The pedestrian “suffered major injuries but is still alive,” the spokesperson said. The incident remains under investigation, but the driver was not arrested. The spokesperson said the pedestrian “for unknown reasons walked into the roadway.”

Across the street, a woman smoked a cigarette outside Joe’s Bar. Powered by a generator, the local cash-only dive joined the police cars, gas station, grocery market, liquor store and Kitten Kornher among the sources of light and activity along Boulder Creek’s commercial center on this electricity-less Friday night. Blowing out a cloud of smoke, the woman lamented the pedestrian-versus-car accident, pointed to the darkened street lamps and wondered out loud whether the prolonged lack of light might shoulder some of the blame.

“It’s terrible,” she said. “The street is usually lit up.”

Inside Joe’s Bar, dozens of locals gathered, filling up each bar stool and most of the tables. Illuminated by a warm mix of lingering Christmas lights, neon signs and ceiling lamps, the bar buzzed with a neighborly positivity, as if it were the physical manifestation of the Boulder Creek Neighbors Facebook page — or is the Facebook group the digital manifestation of the bar’s atmosphere? People asked one another how they were holding up, whether they had enough gas, or if they sustained any significant damage from the storm. Almost too appropriately, “When The Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin sang out from the speakers overhead.

At a nearby high-top table, recent transplant Brian Bell sipped a beer by himself and watched whatever sporting event played on the TV screen behind the bar.

“I’m just passing the time until the power comes back on,” Bell said between sips.

A generator powers a liquor store along Highway 9 in Boulder Creek.
A generator powers a liquor store along Highway 9 in Boulder Creek.
(Christopher Neely / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Originally from Nebraska, he said he moved to Boulder Creek a year ago after spending time in the Bay Area. As Bell put it, he longed for a community with “real people, just living.” The generator he purchased two months ago failed him during the storm, so the previous few nights had forced him to operate with only his fireplace, flashlights and a grill, which he said was fine by him. Still, his neighbors have called and texted to check up on him each day of the power outage.

“That’s just the magic of this place,” Bell said. “There’s just something different about it here. People want to know you.”

A heavy-set man with a long, graying ponytail and a youthful, jovial countenance approached the bar and ordered two beers. He went only by Eric, and did not offer a last name. Eric, who said he has lived in Boulder Creek since 1996, apologized in advance for the possibility that he smelled of wet dog and gasoline. He said he and his two Newfoundlands were surviving the storm. His full-house generator has held up, which has allowed him to bust out his electric guitar. After all, idle minds are the devil’s playground.

“Welcome to our twisted version of Mayberry,” Eric said, referencing the small-town setting of “The Andy Griffith Show” from the 1960s. A smile widened across Eric’s face as he pushed the two beers in the air to make a toast: “Just another day in paradise.”

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