OROVILLE (CBS SF) – A light rain began falling in Oroville Wednesday as residents and state water officials continued to keep a vigilant watch over the massive Oroville Dam and its spillways for any signs that the structure was once again weakening.
Crews have been working around the clock to bolster a weakened area beneath an emergency spillway that forced 188,000 residents to flee their homes on Sunday in an emergency evacuation.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea lifted the mandatory evacuation order on Tuesday, but warned residents in the areas around the Feather River at a Wednesday news conference that they should be ready to flee their homes again if the dam or the spillways should show signs of collapse.
“This is still an emergency,” Honea told reporters. “It’s important for people to be prepared. This is an opportunity (for residents) to get things together so that if the risk level increases and there is the need for us to issue an evacuation order, they will have the things they need… It is also important for people to start things about or planning where they might go and how they might get there.”
On Sunday with a warning that the dam spillway failure was imminent, feeling residents jammed local roadways and we struck in gridlock trying to escape Oroville and the surrounding areas.
California Congressman John Garamendi has said that if the spillway had collapsed, Oroville would have been inundated with as much as 100 feet deep water. The death toll could have been staggering.
“That was an incredibly chaotic situation,” said Honea of the evacuation’ first few hours. “But despite how really chaotic it was, I’m really proud and thankful of the citizens of Butte County…We were able to that (evacuate) pretty quickly and without any major incidents.”
Bill Coyle, the acting director of the state Department of Water Resources, has been overseeing the dam repair project. He says the dam and its spillways have now been stable for several days.
A crew of 98 workers and a fleet of trucks and helicopters have been dumping 1,200 tons of rocks into the damaged area under the emergency spillway since Monday morning.
The dam outflow also has been increased to 100,000 cubic feet per minute out of the main spillway. The release has caused some minor flooding downstream, but has relieved pressure on the dam.
The water level has dropped some 20 feet since it reached capacity early Sunday and overflowed the emergency spillway.
Coyle said: “We don’t expect to see bump in reservoir surface because we’ve already made up enough storage space to manage the inflow (from the incoming storms).”
But forecast change change and with three separate storm front predicted to roll through the region by Tuesday, conditions could change.
“Mother Nature is in the room,” Coyle admitted.
While the vast majority of residents who hastily evacuated Sunday had returned home, others were not so sure and remained outside the area.
The stress of evacuation and an uncertain future were enough for Donald Azevedo and his family to opt to stay a few more nights in an emergency shelter rather than risk having to do it all again.
“My plan is to stay here,” said Azevedo, who evacuated from Marysville with his wife, Tasha, their four Chihuahuas and more than 30 relatives. They spent two nights at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley, Calif. and he planned to wait out this week’s upcoming storm before returning home. Many at the shelter said a drive that should have taken one hour took six hours on Sunday.
“I’m not trying to risk traffic, being stuck in floods. I’m safe where I’m at,” Azevedo said.
When asked Oroville Pastor Dennis Day said many residents harbored the same fears as the Azevedo family.
“I think you would not be authentic or not sincere to say that this somehow doesn’t impact you,” Day said.
Many other evacuees, such as Oroville resident Margaret Johnston, couldn’t wait to get back home.
“You don’t appreciate home until it’s taken away from you,” said Johnston, 69, who spent the last two nights sheltering at a church in Chico.
As she packed the blankets, pillows and clothing she had hastily thrown into a black garbage bag, she reflected on the mad rush to leave, the chaos, confusion
and bottleneck traffic on the drive out.
“It was just frustrating. Very frustrating,” Johnston said.