CHICO (CBS SF) — Thousands of people were packed into emergency shelters and hotel rooms Monday night, still waiting for word on when they will be allowed back home.
Nearly 200,000 people in Butte and Yuba counties were ordered to leave their homes Sunday out of fear that the damaged auxiliary spillway at the Oroville Dam could collapse.
“Our phones just went crazy and we got this alert saying, Hey, everybody needs to evacuate now! In sixty minutes Oroville is going to be under water,” said Oroville evacuee Adam Melendez.
Tens of thousands of people got the same alert. Many fled to high ground as fast as possible. The mass evacuation led to a frightening and frustrating exodus that left locals on edge and exhausted.
“So, everybody is panicking, cars are almost crashing into each other, said Melendez. Everybody is racing, speeding off, places are closing. Gas stations won’t let you in.”
Melendez and his brother art ended up at the Chico Neighborhood Church. A growing crowd of 350 people is taking refuge at the church.
“We want to be a church that loves this city and so this is the way you love your city! You put hand and feet to your message and you make it real,” said Pastor Andrew Burchett.
There are old and young. Some try to find out the latest news on the Oroville Dam, while others seek solace, still shocked by the rapid turn of events.
An amazing outpouring of donations from Chico residents is helping everyone cope just a little bit better, with locals providing food, blankets, cots and other essentials.
The biggest question remains how long the evacuation order is going to last. So far, authorities have not been able to provide a firm answer.
“I feel like we’ve been in limbo about what’s going on and why we’re here,” said evacuee Michael Hepworth.
He lives downstream from the Oroville Dam. He left his home in Gridley quickly Sunday and is staying with family at a higher elevation.
Hepworth wondered why the same officials who at noon Sunday were saying the spillway was fine suddenly announced mass evacuations hours later, exclaiming that the spillway was in danger of collapsing.
“It was like zero to 60,” said Hepworth.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the sharp change in urgency was required.
“When this incident occurred, it became apparent that we needed to act quickly,” said Honea.
The sheriff says the facts on the ground changed quickly once water officials discovered the holes in the emergency spillway.
He felt the need to call for an emergency evacuation and he says people need to continue to stay out of their homes.
“Getting those people home is important to me. I want that to happen as absolutely soon as possible. But I have to be able to sleep at night knowing that they’re in that area,” said Honea. “And if it’s raining and there’s more water coming in the lake and I can’t in good conscience believe those people are safe, I haven’t done my job.”
Hepworth and his family were prepared with a packed bag, but many others evacuated abruptly, leaving valuables and pets behind. They would like a better explanation.
“I still don’t have a clear idea of what the actual danger we were in was,” said Hepworth. “You know, I’m not going to go home because we [may be] in danger, but I don’t know exactly why we were evacuated. So I wish they would communicate that a little better. ”
The streets of Oroville were mostly deserted Monday afternoon.
“Well, right now its basically a ghost town. Not a single business is open,” said local Christina Ferretti. “It’s really, really strange.”
Feretti and her family are still here because they think they live far enough out of harms way.
But Cody Spoonmore is one of the nearly 200,000 people below the Oroville Dam and along the Feather River who had to head to higher ground.
“We just kind of ran out the door, and now we just quickly came back to make sure we could get what we need to be alright,” said Spoonmore.
He and his family were staying with friends until they get the all clear. Currently the only traffic allowed on the highways in the evacuation area are vehicles headed out.
In Oroville, storefronts will remain shuttered and sandbagged as local wait to find out what happens next.