‘I pray for the safety of everybody here’

Some evacuees wound up at fairgrounds, others at an Elks Lodge. Many headed for churches, hotels, friends’ couches or a casino.

And then there were those who found themselves with a front-row seat on an unfolding calamity as evacuation orders went out for more than 160,000 residents Sunday when the Oroville Dam’s auxiliary spillway was threatening to fail. A handful sought safety at the Lake Oroville Visitors Center – a perch on higher ground with a backside view of the cascading water.

“Couldn’t make Chico, streets were closed,” said Ron Peterson, 59, a resident of an Oroville apartment complex who was told by his building superintendent to evacuate. He drove straight to the visitors center, which has a 47-foot viewing tower.

Earlier in the day, dozens of sightseers had crammed into the observation tower, where they were afforded a clear view of the two spillways.

“I hope my place is still there when I go home tomorrow, if I can go home tomorrow,” said Peterson, who was joined by about 30 others in the visitors center.

Susie Cunningham, a 77-year-old volunteer at the center, was able to put out a table load of crackers, cake and bottled water left over from an event a few days earlier.

“I’m really concerned for the elderly and the little kids,” she said.

Across Northern California on Sunday, dramas played out in living rooms, gas stations and freeway onramps as some evacuees had time to grab clothing, laptops and chargers.

Others, such as Erin English of Linda, left with nothing as darkness descended – along with mounting fear and uncertainty over the stability of the Oroville Dam.

“I’m scared to death. I’ve never been through anything like this before,” said English, who got a robocall telling her to evacuate and get to higher ground. “I pray for the safety of everybody here.”

English was buying gas in south Marysville with her husband, two children and dogs when the notification came. She immediately called 911, where dispatchers first told her to go to Chico, then changed their minds, saying she might not make it before the water came through.

Instead, they advised her to go to the Colusa Casino.

The family had no time to retrieve any belongings.

Rocque Merlo, an almond grower in Durham, north of Oroville, said he was out checking the bloom in an orchard near Colusa when a friend called about 5 p.m with the news. He was stunned.

“He said: ‘It’s going.’ 

That was enough for Merlo, who rushed back to his farm and was awaiting the arrival Sunday night of four family friends, including a baby, who took him up on his offer of safe lodging.

“I have friends in Gridley. They have animals, and they have one hour to get out,” said Merlo, who has lived in Durham since 1967.

Aerial photographs and helicopter footage depicted an eerie scene Sunday as a long line of headlights could be seen creeping its way out of Oroville, Marysville and other Northern California communities on what would otherwise be a slow weekend. A woman answering the phone at Oroville Hospital said that patients and staff were “sheltering in place.” Calls to a half-dozen nursing homes went unanswered.

“We had a feeling something like this was going to happen,” Merlo said. “The state wasn’t being forthcoming with anybody. I don’t know why Sacramento didn’t start advising people earlier they might want to think about getting ready. It’s a pretty serious deal.”

Michelle Grandinetti and her family quickly left their home off Oroville-Quincy Highway and tried to get on Highway 70 to head for a family member’s home in Elk Grove. Grandinetti said the scene was slow-going, but frantic.

“We took enough clothes for three days, our children, seven total that are still with us, our two dogs and food for them!” Grandinetti wrote in a Facebook message to The Bee. “We just moved here a few months ago and haven’t ever had to deal with this! Everyone is leaving! All the stores are closed! Just got on the freeway and the river is only feet away!”

Michael Terry, 18, of Gridley was with friends when they all received emergency notifications on their cellphones.

“I got home as fast as I could, and we started packing valuables into our (travel) trailer,” he said.

At 7:45 p.m., Terry said he was with his brother traveling north on Highway 99 through Durham. Their parents were in a pickup truck in front of them, towing their fifth-wheel trailer.

He said the family would probably head for the evacuation center at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico.

The family’s home in Gridley is about three-quarters of a mile from the Feather River, he said.

“If the water went over the levee, it would only be a matter of time before it hit us,” he said.

Craig Weimer, 49, a chef at the Silver Dollar Saloon in Marysville, said he didn’t sense widespread panic.

“A lot of people have been here for years, and they’ve been through it before, since ’86, ’97 – 20 years exactly,” said Weimer, who lives in Yuba City.

Weimer said he was heading for his parents’ home in Seattle but first had to head home, where his wife was packing.

How scared is he?

“On a scale of one to 10,” he said, “probably a seven.”

At the Lake Oroville Visitors Center, 77-year-old D.J. del Rosario wasn’t fretting, even with the scene outside. He drove a Caterpillar that helped build the dam, which opened in 1968.

“I’m not worried about the dam itself,” he said. “I don’t see it going anywhere. It would take an atomic bomb to blow that apart.”

Tony Bizjak and Ryan Lillis contributed to this report. Marjie Lundstrom: 916-321-1055, @MarjieLundstrom

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