Erosion at the emergency spillway of Oroville Dam and the possibility of the structure’s failure prompted the California Department of Water Resources to issue a rapid evacuation order for downstream communities along the Feather River, sending nearly 200,000 residents from Butte, Yuba, and Sutter counties scrambling toward safety on Sunday afternoon.
At 4:45 p.m. Sunday – after five days of maintaining that there was no threat to the public – the Department of Water Resources (DWR) tweeted an evacuation warning that predicted the failure of the emergency spillway within an hour. The evacuation warning was prompted by the discovery of a massive hole in the emergency spillway, which was used for the first time in the dam’s history, after erosion damaged the main concrete spillway. The Butte County Sheriff’s Office ordered downstream communities evacuated shortly thereafter, with Yuba and Sutter counties following suit for some of their own communities.
After the evacuations were ordered, authorities raced to make emergency repairs to the structure while simultaneously reducing the water level behind the dam in advance of upcoming storms. On Sunday night and Monday morning, helicopters placed huge rock-filled bags in the damaged areas of the emergency spillway. Meanwhile, the Department of Water Resources was ramping up releases from the already damaged main spillway. In a press conference Monday, officials said that the immediate risk of a catastrophic failure at the dam had been averted, and that water was no longer flowing over the emergency spillway and lake levels were falling. Still, evacuation orders remain in place and officials aren’t saying when they will be lifted.
“Getting those people home is important to me. I want that to happen absolutely as soon as possible. But I have to be able to sleep at night knowing that they’re back into that area,” Butte County Sheriff Kony Honea said at a press conference on Monday. “And if it’s raining, and there is more water coming into the lake, if I can’t in good conscience believe that those people are safe, I haven’t done my job. And that’s what I’m going to do.”
Late Sunday night, Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. issued an emergency order to bolster the State’s response to the situation at the Oroville Dam’s auxiliary spillway and support subsequent local evacuations.
“I’ve been in close contact with emergency personnel managing the situation in Oroville throughout the weekend, and it’s clear the circumstances are complex and rapidly changing,” said Governor Brown. “I want to thank local and state law enforcement for leading evacuation efforts and doing their part to keep residents safe. The state is directing all necessary personnel and resources to deal with this very serious situation.”
In a letter sent before the Oroville Dam crisis, dated Feb. 10, Gov. Brown asked President Donald Trump to declare a major disaster as a result of “an Atmospheric River system containing several associated storms that swept through California… that caused flash flooding, debris and mud flows, erosion, power outages and damage to critical infrastructure.”
As of Tuesday morning, President Trump had not responded to the request.
Chaos: Bumper-to-Bumper traffic on area highways, Evacuees stream into Colusa
Sunday’s evacuations caused chaos on area roads and highways, with bumper-to-bumper traffic slowing travel to a crawl – including traffic heading into Colusa County on westbound Highway 20.
Maxwell resident Kim Troughton, who is housing a number of family members who evacuated from Linda and East Nicolaus, said that it took her relatives – traveling in a “caravan” of cars – more than five hours to travel from Nicolaus to Maxwell.
“It’s chaos. My family is going (Highway) 99 to I-5 then (to Maxwell, and it’s) bumper to bumper on 99,” Troughton said.
Troughton was able to put her family up in an apartment attached to her Maxwell business. Her husband, Jesse, said that they were just doing what family is supposed to do in a situation like this. But not everyone evacuating was so lucky.
Many evacuees made their way west to Colusa County, where multiple media sources reported they would find an evacuation center. Instead, they arrived at the Colusa County Fairgrounds and discovered there was no such center set up.
“We don’t know who told the media that there were shelters in Colusa County, but they hadn’t opened,” said Janice Bell, the Office of Emergency Services technician for the Colusa County Sheriff’s Office.
Bell said that the Sheriff’s Office received no official mutual aid request from evacuating counties to open an evacuation center. In a press release issued at 9 p.m. on Sunday night, the Colusa County Sheriff, Office of Emergency Services explained as much. Citing the county’s lack of medical facilities, limited available ground ambulance services, and sustained high river levels, the press release explained that “no emergency evacuation centers would be independently opened by the county at this time.”
While it wasn’t an official evacuation center, the Colusa County Fairgrounds did serve as a place to stop and rest, handing out water and allowing the use of its restrooms. Evacuees were also allowed to sleep in the parking lot overnight, and many did. The lot was packed with vehicles on Sunday night, most of which dispersed the following morning. Officials directed them to official evacuation centers, including the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico and the Glenn County Fairgrounds in Orland.
More people stayed overnight at the Town & Country Center parking lot on Bridge Street. Colusa Police Chief Josh Fitch estimated that somewhere between 400 and 500 evacuees stayed in town overnight at the two locations.
“The shopping center is really what surprised me, that it filled up so much,” Fitch said.
County Inns, motels booked out
As of Tuesday morning, two of Colusa County’s largest lodging businesses – Granzella’s Inn and the River Valley Lodge – were still fully booked.
“We’re full. We have been full since last night, naturally,” Granzella’s Inn general manager Ramona Traub said on Monday. “Ninety percent are people from Oroville, Yuba City, Marysville. We’re expecting rooms to clear out past Friday.”
The River Valley Lodge website had no rooms listed as available for Tuesday night.
An employee at the Ramada Inn in Williams said the hotel was booked out on Sunday and Monday, but rooms were available for Tuesday.
Smaller lodging options in Colusa were booked out as well, including the Riverside Inn on Main Street.
“We are full. Everybody is trying to get home, and going day by day,” said manager Hansa Chauhan.
Businesses, volunteers, Citizens offer a hand
Colusa may not have had an official evacuation point, but many evacuees did make their way into town. Businesses, volunteers, and residents still did what they could to help those displaced by the evacuations.
Staff at the fairgrounds handed out water and gave people a place to rest as they made their way to official evacuation centers.
In the Town & Country Shopping Center, businesses stayed open well past their normal hours to accommodate evacuees. Burger King and SavMor were open until nearly 3 a.m., Subway stayed open until midnight, and Davies’ Chevron stayed open all night. Some Colusa residents showed up to invite a handful of strangers into their homes.
At the Chevron station, there were lines extending into the roadway as evacuees waited to fuel up. The store’s owners were all on hand until 4 a.m. Mike Davies said that the station had about five times as much business as it would in a normal 24-hour period.
“It was pretty amazing. Everyone remained calm, and there was no high tension. We did end up staying open 24 hours to handle it, but got through it pretty well… We were basically the only restrooms for the whole mall after Burger King closed. Our restroom was an hour line deep for most of the night. It’s surprising. You think as tired and scared as they are, there would be issues, but there weren’t any. I think everybody tried to do what they can.”
On Monday, volunteers with the Lirio de los Valles and Charity Baptist churches were outside of SavMor, serving up lunch and dinner to those in need of a meal. Lirio de los Valles also opened their doors to evacuees on Monday night, and served breakfast on Tuesday morning. Rebecca Leon, who organized the free meal station, said that they had served around 100 people from 3 p.m. to about 6 p.m., and had received both food and monetary donations from people entering the store. While she was being interviewed, a man walked up and handed her two $500 gift cards for SavMor.
“Get whatever you need, and tell the pastor I said hello,” the man said before walking away.
Shortly thereafter, Colusa Theatre owner Mike Wilkinson walked up to tell Leon that he would be offering a free showing and some food and water on Monday night, and asked her to spread the word.
“It’s really an emotional situation. The stories that some of the people here have are amazing,” Wilkinson said during the movie, which was attended by about 30 people.
Additional Local impacts
The Colusa County Sheriff, Office of Emergency Services said in a press release that there are no immediate concerns to residents of Colusa County at this time, but that they would keep residents apprised should things change. Still, the situation at the dam had implications locally: Colusa Unified School District canceled school on Monday, the Colusa Medical Center announced the postponement of a community meeting scheduled for Thursday, and Recology didn’t provide trash service.
Colusa Unified Superintendent Dwayne Newman said in a post on the district’s Facebook page that he canceled school on Monday “because we are unsure of the effects any breach may have.” Over the phone on Sunday night, Newman added that he had mainly canceled school out of concern for staff. Newman said that the school district has a large number of teachers who commute to Colusa, and he felt it was safest if they didn’t have to travel on Monday. On Monday afternoon, the district announced that they felt it was safe to resume school on Tuesday, and that all schools would start and operate on their normal schedules. Pierce Joint Unified and Williams Unified did not cancel school, and Maxwell Unified had a previously scheduled week off.
After announcing that the Colusa Medical Center community meeting wouldn’t take place on Thursday due to issues related to the Oroville Dam evacuation, CEO Kelley Gentry said that they will announce a new date in the near future.
Recology announced that they would normal operations in Colusa County on Tuesday.
Sacramento River Levees around Colusa in good shape
Cited as a reason for not establishing an evacuation center in Colusa, local officials are keeping an eye on the sustained high water levels in the Sacramento River, and the pressure that causes on Colusa’s levees.
According to Joel Farias, the Utility Craftsworker Assistant Superintendent for the California Department of Water Resources’ Sutter Maintenance Yard, which monitors and maintains the levees around Colusa, those levees are actually in pretty good shape.
“The general health of our area, they look pretty good,” Farias said. “There is some nuisance flooding, leaking pipes. Most of leakage we have is from nuisance pipes that are leaking. We do have some seepage, but that’s normal. We have had high water since mid-December. Typically, earthen levees after a while start to seep, but we don’t have anything that’s out of the ordinary that’s happening right now. When the water is high, our main concern is the City of Colusa and other communities there. We put patrols out and step them up as (river) elevations climb. We are actively monitoring and patrolling Colusa, and have been since Jan. 6. There were only a couple days in February where we didn’t have patrol, and that was it. We will probably continue to patrol the river until it gets down to 63 feet. We want to make sure you folks know we’re out there, and that all of my staff are highly trained. You guys are in good hands.”