Flood fears

Wa­ter level drops be­hind dam­aged Cal­i­for­nia dam


The wa­ter level dropped Mon­day be­hind the na­tion’s tallest dam, re­duc­ing the risk of a cat­a­strophic spill­way col­lapse and eas­ing fears that prompted the evac­u­a­tion of nearly 200,000 peo­ple down­stream.

As the day be­gan, of­fi­cials from the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Wa­ter Re­sources pre­pared to in­spect an ero­sion scar on the spill­way at the dam on Lake Oroville, about 150 miles north­east of San Fran­cisco.

Au­thor­i­ties or­dered evac­u­a­tions Sun­day for ev­ery­one liv­ing be­low the lake out of con­cern that the spill­way could fail and send a 30-foot wall of wa­ter roar­ing down­stream.

“We grabbed our dog and headed to higher ground — away from the river,” said Kim­berly Cum­ings, who moved with her hus­band, Pa­trick, and 3-year-old daugh­ter to Oroville from Fresno a month ago for a new job. They were eat­ing at a res­tau­rant when the evac­u­a­tion or­der came.

A driver with a large ve­hi­cle and three chil­dren of her own gave them a ride to the Red Cross evac­u­a­tion cen­tre at the Sil­ver Dol­lar Fair­grounds in Chico.

“You can’t take a chance with the baby,” Pa­trick Cum­ings said of their de­ci­sion to flee.

The wa­ter level in Lake Oroville rose sig­nif­i­cantly in re­cent weeks af­ter a se­ries of storms that dumped rain and snow across Cal­i­for­nia, par­tic­u­larly in north­ern parts of the state. The high wa­ter forced the use of the dam’s emer­gency spill­way, or over­flow, for the first time in the dam’s nearly 50-year his­tory on Satur­day.

The threat ap­peared to ease some­what Mon­day as the wa­ter level dropped. Of­fi­cials said wa­ter was flow­ing out of the lake at nearly twice the rate as wa­ter flow­ing into it.

Sun­day af­ter­noon’s evac­u­a­tion or­der came af­ter en­gi­neers spot­ted a hole on the con­crete lip of the se­condary spill­way for the 770-foot-tall Oroville Dam and told au­thor­i­ties that it could fail within the hour.

With more rain ex­pected Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day, of­fi­cials were rush­ing to try to fix the dam­age and hop­ing to re­duce the dam’s wa­ter level by 50 feet ahead of the storms.

The sud­den evac­u­a­tion pan­icked res­i­dents, who scram­bled to get their be­long­ings into cars and then grew an­gry as they sat in bumper-to-bumper traf­fic hours af­ter the evac­u­a­tion or­der was given.

Raj Gill, man­ag­ing a Shell sta­tion where anx­ious mo­torists got gas and snacks, said his boss told him to close the sta­tion and flee him­self. But he stayed open to feed a steady line of cus­tomers.

“You can’t even move,” he said. “I’m try­ing to get out of here too. I’m wor­ried about the flood­ing. I’ve seen the pic­tures — that’s a lot of wa­ter.”

A Red Cross spokes­woman said more than 500 peo­ple showed up at an evac­u­a­tion cen­tre in Chico, Cal­i­for­nia.

The shel­ter ran out of blan­kets and cots, and a trac­tor­trailer with 1,000 more cots was stuck in the grid­lock of traf­fic flee­ing the po­ten­tial flood­ing Sun­day night, Red Cross shel­ter man­ager Pam Ded­itch said.

At least 250 Cal­i­for­nia law en­force­ment of­fi­cers were posted near the dam and along evac­u­a­tion routes to man­age the ex­o­dus and en­sure evac­u­ated towns don’t be­come tar­gets for loot­ing or other crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity.

Butte County Sher­iff Kory Honea said a lot was still un­known.

“We need to con­tinue to lower the lake lev­els, and we need to give the Depart­ment of Wa­ter Re­sources time to fully eval­u­ate the sit­u­a­tion so we can make the de­ci­sion to whether or not it is safe to re­pop­u­late the area,” Honea said.

About 188,000 res­i­dents of Yuba, Sut­ter and Butte coun­ties were or­dered to evac­u­ate.


This Satur­day aerial photo shows the dam­aged spill­way with eroded hill­side in Oroville, Calif. Wa­ter will con­tinue to flow over an emer­gency spill­way at the U.S.’s tallest dam for another day or so, of­fi­cials said Sun­day.

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