Water & Drought

Oroville Dam evacuees told they can return home

With the crisis at the Oroville Dam stabilized for now, authorities announced Tuesday that the 188,000 people evacuated Sunday will be allowed to return to their homes but should prepare to move again if a new emergency arises.

The announcement by Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, who ordered the mass exodus Sunday afternoon amid fears that the dam’s emergency spillway might collapse, came in a 1:40 p.m. press briefing in Oroville.

“The risks that we faced have significantly been reduced...,” Honea said. “We have concluded that it is safe to reduce the immediate evacuation order to an evacuation warning.”

The sheriff said residents could begin returning home immediately, but he urged them to remain alert for the possibility that an emergency may require another evacuation.

Despite that, officials said they are confident that the steps taken to repair the hillside along the emergency spillway – using helicopters to dump boulders into holes and pour concrete on top of the piles – have made the structure safe in the event that the emergency spillway must be used again.

They also said such a scenario is highly unlikely, with the next series of storms predicted to be much weaker than previous ones.

“The storms are much smaller than we’ve seen here this last weekend,” said Bill Croyle, acting director of the state Department of Water Resources.

Authorities also revealed that inspections since Sunday showed that “there was no piping or other erosion that compromised the overall integrity of the emergency spillway” and that action taken to fill in holes and erosion from water releases have strengthened it.

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.

Residents in town on Tuesday said they were relieved that officials believe the danger is over.

“I will never forget that feeling of trying to get out” of Oroville on Sunday, 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.”

Sandra Rix never left town, mainly because of health issues that would have complicated an evacuation, she said.

She praised officials and welcomed the idea of being able to purchase “groceries and toilet paper” at businesses that soon will reopen.

“I just hope it’s not going to happen all over again” with another round of storms slated for this weekend, she said.

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.

Some people refused to leave their homes, and others began 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.

Honea had been adamant that he would not allow residents to return until he was certain they would be safe, and he acknowledged that ordering the evacuation in the first place had been extremely difficult.

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 said he is confident in the decision to downgrade the order to a voluntary evacuation.

“I waited until I was sure,” Honea said.

Massive storms filled Lake Oroville and water began spilling over the lip of the emergency spillway Saturday for the first time in the dam’s 49-year history. Erosion on the hillside adjacent to the spillway led to fears that the structure would fail Sunday afternoon, and officials ordered the evacuations.

Since then, massive releases of 100,000 cubic feet per second through the main spillway have lowered the level of the lake to about 14 feet below the lip of the emergency spillway, and authorities are hoping to lower the lake level by 50 feet – a level they call “flood control stage” – by Saturday or Sunday.

More storms are predicted to hit the area starting Thursday, but Croyle said they are not expected to be powerful enough to produce rainfall that will create another problem.

Meanwhile, a massive effort is underway to fill in erosion in front of the emergency spillway that led to officials ordering the evacuations. Authorities have 40 truckloads moving 30 tons of boulders every hour, two helicopters dumping rocks every 90 seconds and 125 construction crews at work.

“We’re aggressively attacking the erosion concerns that have been identified...,” Croyle said. “We have a long spring runoff ahead of us, and we’re prepared for that...”

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam Tony Bizjak contributed.

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