About 188,000 residents near Oroville, Calif. were ordered to evacuate Sunday after a hole in an emergency spillway in the Oroville Dam threatened to flood the surrounding area. Thousands clogged highways leading out of the area headed south, north and west and arteries major and minor remained jammed as midnight approached on the West Coast.
Even as they fled, however, the flow of water over the spillway halted late in the evening, stabilizing the crisis. But officials warned the damaged infrastructure could create further dangers as storms approach in the week ahead and it remained unclear when residents might be able to return to their homes.
Lake Oroville is one of California’s largest man-made lakes with 3.5 million acre-feet of water and 167 miles of shoreline, and the 770-foot-tall Oroville Dam is the nation’s tallest, about 44 feet higher than Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. The lake is the linchpin of California’s government-run water delivery system, sending water from the Sierra Nevada for agriculture in the Central Valley and for residents and businesses in Southern California.
After a record-setting drought, California has been battered by potentially record-setting rain, with the Northern California region getting 228 percent more than its normal rainfall for this time of year. The average annual rainfall of about 50 inches had already been overtaken with 68 inches in 2017 alone.
There was never any danger of the dam collapsing. The problem was with the spillways, which are safety valves designed to release water in a controlled fashion, preventing water from topping over the wall of the colossal dam that retains Lake Oroville.
Earlier this week, unexpected erosion crumbled through the main spillway, sending chunks of concrete flying and creating a large hole. Then sheets of water began spilling over the dam’s emergency spillway for the first time in its nearly 50-year history.
Water from rain and snow rapidly flowed into the lake, causing it to rise to perilous levels, and sending water down the wooded hillside’s emergency spillway, carrying murky debris into the Feather River below.
“Once we have damage to a structure like that, it’s catastrophic,” Bill Croyle, acting director of the state’s Department of Water Resources, said in a 10 p.m. news conference Sunday, in reference to the erosion of the main spillway. “We determined we could not fix the hole. You don’t just throw a little bit of rock in it.”
Anticipating a possible catastrophe for the Lake Oroville area, located about 75 miles north of Sacramento and about 25 miles southeast of Chico, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office ordered evacuations, adding in a news release that this was “NOT a drill.”
But as the reservoir’s water levels lowered, the flows over the emergency spillway ceased late Sunday night.
California Governor Jerry Brown (D) issued an emergency order to boost the state’s response to the evacuation efforts and spillway crisis, which Brown called “complex and rapidly changing.” Despite the minimized threats, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said in a news conference at about 10 p.m. local time Sunday that he would not be lifting the mandatory evacuation order until water resources officials had a better grasp on the anticipated risks.
The evacuation took residents by surprise.
April Torlone, 18, was at work at a Dollar General in Live Oak, Calif., Sunday evening when she received a flood emergency alert on her phone. She hurried home, she said, where she had about 10 minutes to gather some clothes and her late father’s ashes.
Torlone drove with her mother and sister to her grandmother’s house in Sacramento, arriving well after midnight. The roughly 40-mile trip took six hours, she said. Gas stations were packed and stores were running out of food. Along the way, they saw more than 30 people camped out in their cars on the side of the road, many with trunks full of belongings, Torlone said.
“I just hope everyone is safe and finds a place to stay, and that no one’s homes are damaged,” she told The Washington Post. “It’s honestly so sad.”
Shelters, churches, schools, and seven Sikh temples opened their doors in a striking display of common purpose and community. People offered to open their homes to strangers via Twitter messages. Hotels and motels out-of-harm’s-way filled up quickly, creating little communities of the suddenly displaced.
The dam itself remained structurally sound through the evening, the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) said.
In a news conference Sunday night, Honea said helicopters would be deployed to drop bags of rocks into the crevice and prevent any further erosion.
Officials doubled the flow of water out of the nearly mile-long primary spillway to 100,000 cubic feet per second, helping to reduce the lake’s levels. The normal flow is about half as much, but increased flows are common at this time of year, during peak rain season, officials said.
Croyle said that the lake would need to lower almost 50 feet to reach levels at which the system would normally operate. Croyle said that personnel were unable to access the eroded emergency spillway Sunday to do repair work. Officials aimed to continue to discharge as much water as possible ahead of upcoming storms, without adding too much pressure to the already damaged infrastructure.
“Our goal is to be able to use that infrastructure throughout this wet season,” Croyle said. Forecasts indicate that dry weather will dominate through Tuesday, but a series of Pacific storms are expected to arrive across the region Wednesday into Thursday, bringing up to 4 inches of rain to parts of the Central Valley, according to the National Weather Service.
Honea called the evacuation order a “critical and difficult decision” and said he recognized it would cause significant dislocations and traffic jams, which it did. Residents of Oroville, a town of 16,000 people, were ordered to head north toward Chico, while other nearby residents drove south toward Sacramento.
“I recognize how tough this situation is on people,” Honea said in the 10 p.m. news conference. “I recognize that we’ve had to displace a lot of people.”
The California National Guard will provide eight helicopters to assist with emergency spillway repair, Adjutant General David S. Baldwin said in a news conference. All 23,000 soldiers and airmen statewide received an alert to be “ready to go if needed,” Baldwin said. The last time such an alert was sent out to the entire California National Guard was the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which erupted after a trial jury acquitted four officers of the Los Angeles Police Department of the use of excessive force in the videotaped arrest and beating of Rodney King.
Officials said 250 law enforcement personnel were being deployed to patrol the evacuated areas.
Travelers reported traffic at a standstill on some routes, especially on Highway 99 between Oroville and Chico.
Nicholas Mertz, a front desk supervisor at Oxford Suites Chico, told The Post that when he started his shift at 3 p.m., Sunday, the hotel’s 184 rooms were at 54 percent occupancy, but within an hour or two, the rooms reached full capacity. What began as a normal night quickly turned into “hectic craziness, everything all at once,” Mertz said. The hotel’s five phone lines were ringing non-stop, and hundreds of guests came pouring in.
“It’s never happened that fast,” Mertz said. Larger families of five to eight people packed into rooms, without having to pay the usual fees for additional guests, Mertz said, because “in this scenario, it’s whatever you can do.”
Many guests expressed confusion and frustration, while others spoke of their fears: What would happen to the pets they left behind? Would there be looting in the evacuated neighborhoods? Would their homes still be standing when they returned?
“Not only are you just a front desk person you’re kind of like a therapist as well,” Mertz said.
Kyle Dobson, 41, said he was visiting the dam Sunday afternoon from Yuba City, Calif., and noticed that the lake was higher than he had ever seen it. He said he got a call later in the day that Oroville was being evacuated. By the time he got home, Yuba City had also been ordered to evacuate.
Dobson said he and his wife packed about a week’s worth of clothes for themselves and their four young children, and moved pictures and other belongings to the second floor of their two-story home. For now, they are staying put, but if the situation gets worse, they will drive to Sutter, Calif., to stay with family, Dobson said.
“I’ll stay up probably all night, listen to the police scanner and watch the reports come in,” he said. “The river levels — that’s what you’ve got to watch out for.”
Adriana Weidman of Marysville, Calif., said she heard about the evacuation around 5 p.m. Fearing that nearby rivers would overflow, she rushed to pack as much as she could, then got into the car with her husband and two children, she said. By 10 p.m., the family was still sitting in gridlocked traffic on the way to Colfax, Calif., about 45 miles east.
“It’s scary,” Weidman told The Post. “I’m terrified I’m not going to have a home to come home to.”
Out of an “abundance of caution,” inmates were in the process of being evacuated from the Butte County Jail Sunday night, the sheriff’s office wrote on Facebook.
“We needed to get people moving quickly in order to protect the public and save lives if the worst case scenario did come to fruition,” Honea said.
The damaged primary spillway caused water flowing downstream to become muddy and brown with debris earlier this week, threatening the lives of millions of baby Chinook salmon in the Feather River Hatchery below. In a rescue operation, officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife successfully moved about 5 million Chinook salmon to a nearby annex, the department said on Facebook.
The other 3 million baby salmon will remain at the main hatchery, where staff and engineers have rigged a system of pumps, pipes and generators and a sediment pond in the hopes of filtering the water enough to support the fish.
Ironically, the state’s five years of drought caused Lake Oroville’s water levels to plunge to a low of 33 percent of capacity, according to the Los Angeles Times. The lake became a poster child for the drought. In a dramatic shift, Northern California witnessed an extraordinarily rainy winter this year that caused waters to rise to their highest levels in decades.