OROVILLE (CBS SF) – A fleet of state and National Guard helicopters were preparing to dump tons of rocks on an eroding spillway at the Oroville Dam Monday, carrying with them the hopes of more than 188,000 evacuees who fled in panic when a collapse appeared to be imminent.
Meanwhile, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the evacuation order would stay in place until officials were certain the returning residents would be safe.
"I want to make it very clear," Honea said at a noon press conference. "We're working on a re-population plan to allow for the safe and orderly return of the citizens to their homes. When it is safe based upon the evaluation from DWR (state Department of Water Resources) and our state and federal partners. Then we will be in a better position to determine when to lift the evacuation. But I want to make it clear evacuations are still in place."
At dawn, officials began inspecting an erosion scar on the potentially hazardous emergency spillway.
Meanwhile, evacuees were telling a tale of a frightening exodus from Oroville and other small towns along the Feather River.
The residents were given little warning and fled into a chaotic evacuation. Local roadways including Highway 99 were gridlocked and gas stations along the escape route were drained of gasoline.
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Honea said once word was given that the spillway was about to fail, it was time to begin evacuating residents immediately.
"Anytime you take on a situation like this where you seek to evacuate thousands of people on very short notice, it can be a chaotic situation," Honea said. "We understand that."
Kaysi Levias and her family were among those who were forced to quickly flee.
"The police came and told us to evacuate," she said.
"I'm just shocked," Greg Levias added. "Pretty mad."
"Not giving us more warning," said Kaysi, finishing his sentence.
"We've never been through this before," said Kaysi Levias. "We have two boys and our dog. All the stuff we could fit in the trunk — clothes and blankets."
Jennifer Neff of Marysville wandered through a Chevron parking lot, her gas light glowing, her phone on hold with roadside assistance.
"There's nowhere to get gas," Neff told the Sacramento Bee. "I've called roadside assistance – I'm on hold with them now. Do we call the police?"
Hours later, the Department of Water Resources said the erosion on the emergency spillway was not advancing as fast as they initially thought.
"Unfortunately they couldn't advise me or tell me specifically how much time that would take so we had to make the very difficult and critical decision to initiate the evacuation of the Orville area and all locations south of that," Honea said. "We needed to get people moving quickly to save lives if the worst case scenario came into fruition."
At dawn more than 188,000 residents had evacuated out of the region, many to an evacuation center set up miles away in Chico.
Here's a list of some of the evacuation centers.
- Silver Dollar Fairgrounds at 2357 Fair Street in Chico (small animals accepted)
- Paradise Alliance Church (CMA) at 6491 Clark Road in Oroville (small animals accepted, RVs allowed in parking lot)
- Elks Lodge (Paradise) 1100 Elks Lane, Paradise - (no small animals accepted, RVs allowed in parking lot)
Water continued to be released from the Dam – which at one point Sunday night was at 101 percent of capacity – early Monday to relieve pressure on the eroding emergency spillway and a damaged main spillway. It had dropped 3.7 inches over night.
The good news being reported late Sunday night was that the release of water from the main spillway had stopped water from going over the damaged auxiliary spillway.
According to the Butte County officials, in addition to downtown Oroville and Thermalito, other evacuated areas include the towns of Gridley, Biggs and Loma Rica as well as areas along the Feather River south of Butte County.
Additionally, there were evacuations ordered in Yuba County including the areas around Hallwood, Marysville, Olivehurst/Linda and Plumas Lake.
The state had ordered 23,000 National Guardmen to be ready for immediate deployment if the dam spillway should fail and a number of swift water rescue teams from around the state had been sent to Chico.
While in the short term the plan is to bolster the eroding structure with bags of boulders, a greater concern is the long term forecast which predicts rain beginning on Wednesday night and continuing through next Tuesday.
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