Oroville dam water level drops after massive evacuation

OROVILLE, Calif. (AP) — The sheriff of a California county where thousands of people were evacuated as a damaged spillway on a huge dam threatened to fail says repairs may need to be made before residents are allowed to go home.

But Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea didn't say how long the fixes could take and offered no timetable for lifting the evacuation order.

Water officials say storms expected later this week in the area will be smaller than last week.

Water levels dropped Monday at California's Lake Oroville, stopping water from spilling over a massive dam's potentially hazardous emergency spillway after authorities ordered the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people from towns lying below the lake.

California Department of Water Resources officials were waiting for the light of dawn to inspect an erosion scar on the spillway at the Oroville Dam, the nation's largest.

The evacuations for people living below the lake were ordered Sunday after authorities warned that failure of the emergency spillway could send a 30-foot wall of water into the communities.

The lake that also serves as a reservoir has swelled significantly in recent weeks because California has been hit by a series of storms that have dumped rain and snow across the state, particularly in northern California where the lake lies about 150 miles northeast of San Francisco.

The threat appeared to ease somewhat Monday, which officials saying water flows into the lake stood at about 45,000 cubic feet per second with outflows at 100,000 cubic feet per second.

Evacuation shelters

  • Silver Dollar Fairgrounds (Full as of Sunday night), 2357 Fair Street, Chico (small animals accepted);
  • Paradise Alliance Church (CMA), 6491 Clark Road (small animals accepted, RVs allowed in Parking Lot);
  • Elks Lodge (Paradise) 1100 Elks Lane, Paradise - (no small animals accepted, RVs allowed in Parking Lot).
  • Neighborhood Church in Chico, 2801 Notre Dame;
  • Nevada County Fairgrounds (via Gate 4), 11228 McCourtney Rd, Grass Valley, CA - (RVs allowed and space for animal evacuations).

Lake Oroville is one of California's largest man-made lakes and had water levels so high on Saturday that its emergency spillway was used for the first time since it was built nearly 50 years ago.

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.

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.

Kaysi and Greg Levias packed everything they could into their car from their Yuba City apartment and piled everything they were leaving behind as high as possible before leaving the city.

"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.

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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 center in Chico, California.

The shelter had run out of blankets and cots, and a tractor trailer with 1,000 more cots was stuck in the gridlock of traffic fleeing the potential flooding, said Red Cross shelter manager Pam Deditch.

A California Highway Patrol spokesman said two planes would fly Monday to help with traffic control and possible search and rescue missions.

At least 250 California law enforcement officers were posted near the dam and along evacuation routes to manage the exodus of residents and ensure evacuated towns don't face looting or other criminal activity.

"There is still a lot of unknowns," Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. "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."

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

Five hundred inmates were also evacuated from Butte County Jail. They were moved to Alameda County Jail. 

Oroville Lake levels had decreased by Sunday night as they let water flow from its heavily damaged main spillway.

Croyle said the department will continue releasing as much as 100,000 cubic feet per second from the main spillway to try and reduce the dam's level by 50 feet ahead of storms forecast to reach the area Wednesday.

Department engineer and spokesman Kevin Dossey told the Sacramento Bee the emergency spillway was rated to handle 250,000 cubic feet per second, but it began to show weakness Sunday after flows peaked at 12,600 cubic feet per second.

The California National Guard put out a notification to all of its 23,000 soldiers and airmen to be ready to deploy. It marked the first time an alert for the entire California National Guard had been issued since the 1992 riots in Los Angeles after a jury acquitted four police officers in the beating of Rodney King.

Earlier Sunday, officials had stressed the Oroville Dam itself was structurally sound.

Unexpected erosion chewed through the main spillway during heavy rain earlier this week, sending chunks of concrete flying and creating a 200-foot-long, 30-foot-deep hole that continues growing.

Engineers do not know what caused the cave-in. Chris Orrock, a Department of Water Resources spokesman, said it appears the dam's main spillway has stopped crumbling even though it is being used for water releases.

The lake is a central piece of California's government-run water delivery network, supplying water for agriculture in the Central Valley and residents and businesses in Southern California.

School Closures:

  • Most schools in Butte County are closed Monday. The only exceptions are schools in Chico and Paradise districts, which are north of potential flooding. Butte College and the county office of education will also be closed.
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