Two days after nearly 200,000 Northern California residents were ordered to flee the Oroville Dam crisis, evacuees began trickling back into their homes Tuesday following an announcement that the threat of flooding had eased and repairs on the structure were moving quickly.
Although Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea emphasized that residents needed to be ready to leave again if there was a new threat of floods, he declared that “the risks that we faced have significantly been reduced.”
The sheriff said vulnerable residents, including those who are disabled or don’t have vehicles, should remain in shelters out of the county in case another mandatory evacuation order is issued. He also emphasized that those who return should remain alert in case another evacuation must be ordered.
Honea said he is confident he made the right decision Sunday – when officials feared the dam’s emergency spillway might fail and send a 30-foot cascade of water crashing toward town – and on Tuesday, when he finally became convinced the danger largely had passed for now.
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“I waited until I was sure,” Honea said.
By the time Honea made his announcement, which was carried live on television and streamed over the internet, California Highway Patrol roadblocks already had vanished from affected communities and the largely deserted streets of Oroville had begun to see a growing stream of returning residents.
“All of us were a little frustrated with the not knowing if my house is still standing,” said Kathe Hadley, who pulled up to her 1905 Victorian home on Montgomery Street in downtown Oroville in a pickup truck filled with luggage and groceries. “But I trust my sheriff. If he said it’s OK, it’s OK for us to come back.”
Hadley, who is married to a sheriff’s lieutenant, said she and three grandchildren and two dogs fled her home a few blocks from the Feather River for high ground just outside of town, where they bunked with her daughter-in-law’s parents.
After 27 years living in town, Hadley says she is well aware of the flood danger Oroville sometimes faces, but only worries when it rains particularly hard.
Hadley appeared to be one of the early arrivals back in town, where the coffee shops and bed and breakfasts of the quaint downtown area remained closed at midafternoon while others were beginning to reopen.
The Raley’s grocery store reopened shortly after the announcement, and residents waiting outside rushed in, quickly forming lines at cash registers. “Hello Raley’s shoppers! Welcome home!” someone said via overhead speaker.
There were many reminders of the emergency that officials said Oroville had faced: helicopters from news crews and dam repair efforts could be heard throughout downtown, and electronic billboards outside Oroville still flashed bright red evacuation warnings.
Oroville police, assisted by personnel from agencies across the region, began preparing for a surge of traffic into the area.
“We are getting ready for thousands of people coming back into town,” said Lt. Chris Nicodemus.
“All hands are on deck” to make sure the commute is orderly, he said.
Returning residents began to give a sense of life to the community, and alternately expressed gratitude that they were back home yet frustration over the disruption they had faced.
“I will never forget that feeling of trying to get out,” said Cindy Bone. “Scary, just like a movie.”
Some added that they believed officials handled the crisis well.
The evacuations were “the right thing,” Bernice Hedrick said as she waited for her turn at a busy medical clinic behind Oroville Hospital.
“They just weren’t sure what was going to happen, and I think they still don’t, to be honest. But if they say it’s safe, I guess we have to trust them.”
Leonna Barranca and her daughter Cheyenne, who live near downtown but have been staying with relatives on higher ground, said they were not confident that the area would be safe through the winter – or even through the weekend. They anticipated having to leave again when the next big storm rolls in.
“I feel that the officials are not being honest with us,” Barranca said. “I feel that dam was not built correctly, and it will fail again and people will die.
“I hope they can fix it, but I just don’t know.”
Authorities went to lengths Tuesday to reassure residents, explaining at a news briefing that the emergency spillway repairs are moving smoothly and water releases from the lake have made the situation more manageable. Helicopters and trucks are dumping boulders into an area of the emergency spillway that eroded last weekend, and concrete is being poured onto those piles to strengthen the repairs.
Communities covered by the evacuation order included Oroville, Marysville, Olivehurst, Linda, Plumas Lake, Gridley, Live Oak and Yuba City.
The mass exodus filled motels and hotels in Chico and areas of Sacramento, as well as emergency shelters set up in fairgrounds, schools, at Cal Expo and on the grounds of Beale Air Force Base. At least one shelter at the Nevada County fairgrounds in Grass Valley reached capacity Tuesday just before the evacuation order was lifted.
Some people refused to leave their homes, and others had already begun returning on Monday to the largely deserted communities. Others who were living in shelters or sleeping in their vehicles were complaining by Monday that they wanted to return to their homes.
Hunter DeHerrera, whose family fled their downtown home Sunday and returned Tuesday afternoon, was not convinced the danger has passed, and said family members are keeping their bags packed even though they are back home.
“It’s a big dam,” said DeHerrera, 17, whose 2-week-old sister Riley needed to be hustled out along with the other family members. “You’d expect they would maintain it at a better level.”