Cindy Messer apologized Tuesday to several hundred grim Oroville residents who had been ordered to run from their homes three months earlier.
They sat rigidly in their seats inside the Oroville Municipal Auditorium at the first public meeting Messer’s agency, the Department of Water Resources, has hosted in Oroville since the February crisis at the dam. Some sternly crossed their arms as they stared Messer down.
“We are very, very sorry for the disruption of your lives for the fear and the anger and the uncertainty I believe that you have lived with for the last several months – for all of the heartache and the stress that you went through during the emergency and the evacuation that followed,” said Messer, a chief deputy director at the DWR. “Our hope is for these types of meetings is that we can begin to build some degree of trust with the community. I know that is going to be a big ask on our part.”
Trust is going to be hard to come by for many who spoke to DWR officials Tuesday night, including Don Fultz, a 63-year-old retiree from Oroville.
“I thought it interesting how many people had something to say about transparency when you’ve got all the roads and even walking trails blocked off so nobody can even see what’s going on up there,” Fultz said. “There was a comment that you’ve all gone through this with us – all the fear and the anger. None of you were in harm’s way. None of you. That’s BS. It angers me to hear you stand up here and say that.”
In early February, DWR officials had assured residents that everything was going to be fine, despite the gaping chasm that formed in Oroville Dam’s spillway and the water rushing down its emergency spillway for the first time in the dam’s nearly 50-year history. The state initially insisted here was no risk that the unfathomable amounts of water stored in the flooded canyons just above town would come rushing down, flooding everything – and everyone – in its path.
Those assurances vanished on the evening of Feb. 12, when the hillside below the emergency spillway nearly washed away and everyone in town was told to run for their lives because a 30-foot “wall of water” was on its way. Residents in Oroville and downstream communities were unable to return to their homes for two days.
Now, the DWR is hosting a series of community meetings to hear concerns and assure residents that both spillways will be shored up and ready to use by November, at the start of the next rainy season. The first of the seven meetings was held last week in Gridley. The last will take place May 15 in Sacramento.
Don Blake, 69, a retired attorney who lives in Oroville, doesn’t think the state can complete the work on schedule. He argues the only way to ensure the community’s safety is for the DWR to drain the lake this summer down to the point where it would be unlikely the spillways would need to be used during the winter. But that would require sacrificing water stored in the lake for Southern California cities and farms.
Blake taped to the wall of the auditorium a sign that said “The SAFETY Solution is a lake HALF full.”
“Are you going to make that commitment?” Blake asked the panel of DWR officials in one of the fiercest exchanges of the night.
“I cannot make a specific commitment right now,” Messer said. Others on the DWR panel said plans for summertime lake’s levels are still under consideration.
Not everyone in Oroville is angry at the DWR.
Juanita Espinal, 40, who works in retail, thanked the DWR officials for how they handled the crisis.
“You all have stood by our community and saved us and are continuing to save us,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the decisions you guys have made we would have even lost our homes, our businesses, our lands and possibly even our lives.”