The night we evacuated Oroville
MATT MURRAY, CIVIL ENGINEER/ LIAISON OFFICER AT OROVILLE DAM
At 770 feet tall, the Oroville Dam, where I work, is the tallest dam in the United States and holds the second-largest reservoir in California. I’m from Oroville, and I was there this past February, the day the dam threatened to flood thousands of homes.
In just six weeks, storms had delivered six months’ worth of water to the region. The last one hit us much more squarely than we thought it would. The reservoir was rising fast. To drain it, we had to first let it reach the top so it could run into the spillway—the emergency overflow outlet we use only for catastrophes. We sent out about 20 engineers and geologists to monitor potential erosion on the dirt slope.
Then on February 12, one of our monitors radioed that the water was destroying the hillside. He estimated that in an hour, the erosion would reach the barrier holding back the reservoir. If it failed, 30 feet of water would race downhill, flooding several communities.
That’s when the sheriff, who was in a control room with us, took over. He said this emergency wasn’t about moving water anymore; it was now dedicated to saving lives. Then he shouted, “Does everyone support that plan?” The entire room yelled in unison, “Yes!”
We evacuated about 188,000 people downstream. I had 30 family members and their pets staying with me. Luckily, the spillway held. In the end, we corralled one of the largest storms this area had ever seen. Months later, we’re still rebuilding. We’re making half a million cubic yards of concrete on-site rather than trucking it in so we can work faster and repair the damage by the end of the year, when water season begins again—there is no other option.