OROVILLE (CBS SF) – It was just an ordinary Sunday afternoon in Tevin Lee’s Oroville neighborhood.
The sky was sunny after many days of rain and kids played in the nearby streets. But the tranquility was short lived.
A broadcast alert, a text, a reverse 911 call, police on loud speakers driving down the street. Suddenly, there was chaos, panic and fear.
A spillway at the towering Oroville Dam was on the brink of imminent collapse. In 40 minutes, a wall of water 30-feet high could be raging through the city.
“Everybody threw everything in their cars and they were gone,” Lee said. “It was like walking in a ghost town.”
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The experience was much the same for Julie Swift.
“I just got a text message and then an alert saying get out as fast as you can and there’s fire trucks going up and down our street saying evacuate,” she said.
And for Nancy Borsdorf.
“I was surprised by all the traffic and my neighborhood was already basically empty,” she said. “I panicked and started putting things in my car. Basically, my violin, a Didgeridoo (a wind instrument), some family photos, and I grabbed some wet laundry. Can you believe that?”
Frank and Kitty Mastrangelo were staying at an evacuation center at Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico along with 700 other evacuees. They wondered about when they would be able to return home.
“I’m scared because I’ve never been in anything like this before,” Kitty said.
Kimberly and Patrick Cumings had just moved to Oroville from Fresno with 3-year-old daughter Elizabeth a month ago because of a new job.
They were eating at a restaurant when the evacuation order happened and ended up in an evacuation shelter without their belongings.
A driver with a large vehicle and three children of her own gave them a ride to the Red Cross evacuation center at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds.
Others had harrowing tales of their exodus from the Oroville area. Roadways, especially Highway 99, were gridlocked with traffic. Gas stations were drained empty by fleeing motorists.
“The police came and told us to evacuate,” said Kaysi Levias who was with her husband, Greg, at a gas station as they attempted to flee.
Officials warned residents that the spillway could fail within an hour.
“I’m just shocked,” Greg Levias said. “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 wandered through a Chevron parking lot, her gas light glowing, her phone on hold with roadside assistance.
Gas stations were closed, their pumps shut off, even for debit and credit cards.
“There’s nowhere to get gas,” Neff said. “I’ve called roadside assistance – I’m on hold with them now. Do we call the police?”
Fortunately, the dam held firm on Sunday night and into Monday. The more than 188,000 evacuees were able to safely get to higher ground.
But now the wait began. When would they be able to return home safely? And with more rain in the forecast for later in the week, would their return be any time soon.
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