Back-Seat Driver

‘Mass chaos’ of Oroville evacuation prompts worry over exit strategy

Thousands of north Sacramento Valley residents will never forget last Sunday night. It was the night they got stuck in the scariest traffic jam they will ever know.

It began with a shock, a 4:21 p.m. Butte County sheriff’s alert that the emergency spillway at Oroville Dam was crumbling and could fail within the hour. Residents of Oroville, Marysville, Yuba City and other areas near the Feather River were ordered to flee, with the admonition: “This (is) NOT A Drill. This (is) NOT A Drill. This (is) NOT A Drill.”

The spillway did not give way. But that alert unleashed a flood of its own, sending tens of thousands of cars simultaneously onto undersized roads, creating hours-long backups that left residents wondering if they would get to high ground before floodwaters overtook them.

Traffic squeezed through lower Oroville as drivers funneled toward Highway 70. Southbound on the narrow two-lane highway, some unprepared drivers ran out of gas. Others used the shoulder to get past traffic.

In downtown Marysville, amid stalled traffic and honking horns, a driver jumped onto his pickup truck’s running board to scream at police that he’d sue the city if they didn’t let him through. It took a Yuba City resident, wife of a county official, six hours to wind her way to Davis.

Highways 70 and 99 southbound were still at a crawl near midnight at their merge north of Sacramento.

“This was an all-at-once ‘boom’ type of thing,” said Yuba County spokesman Russ Brown. Brown was part of the various government teams that got word out fast via robo-calls to residences, texts, Facebook, Twitter and media alerts. Officials soon discovered traffic pinch points that they need to plan for and smooth out, Brown said, should this happen again.

Butte County officials on Friday acknowledged they too have some rethinking to do.

Questioned by Sacramento Bee reporter Ryan Lillis at a press conference in Oroville on Friday, Sheriff Kory Honea said officials from a bunch of agencies are convening meetings to look at improving the process.

“We are now beginning to catch up and try to understand all the activities,” Honea said. “As the days go forward, we will refine that (evacuation plan).”

Honea has continually said the massive evacuation was the right thing to do, though it was one of the most difficult decisions county officials have had to make. He suggested on Friday, however, that a new evacuation plan designed specifically for a spillway failure may look different from one the county currently uses, which contemplates a complete failure of the dam.

It’s unclear how many people were evacuated this week. Although the total population in the evacuation area across three counties has been estimated at 188,000, Bee reporters who toured Oroville during last week’s evacuations found many homes higher in the hills were not evacuated, and even some residents in low-lying neighborhoods just yards from the Feather River were defying the order.

California Highway Patrol spokesman Ryan Lambert in Oroville said drivers themselves were a problem Sunday night, slowing traffic in some instances and causing hazards. He listed the issues CHP was dealing with: “Unprepared citizens who were running out of gas and their vehicles were becoming disabled in the roadway. People were utilizing the shoulder, driving the wrong way. Traffic collisions were occurring. People fearing for their lives, not abiding by the traffic laws.”

“All combined, it created big problems. It ended up pure, mass chaos.”

A number of law-enforcement and emergency officials said they felt the evacuation process, overall, was a success, even though it left many residents frustrated. To speed traffic toward higher ground in Chico, the CHP’s Lambert said officers allowed evacuees to drive north on both sides of Highway 70. And the Butte County Association of Governments managed to get several buses into Oroville to pick up and transport 150 disabled or carless people for evacuation.

But Jon Clark, executive director of the Butte County Association of Governments, said the incident highlights a bad situation on Highway 70, the main state route in the valley below the dam, along with Highway 99, several miles to the west. Much of the Highway 70 corridor has been expanded over decades into a modern highway. But the 21-mile section between Oroville and Marysville remains an undersized and dangerous two-lane road. On Sunday night, it got jammed.

“Butte County is the biggest county in the state not served by a (continuous) four-lane highway, and that is ridiculous,” Clark said. He plans to travel to Washington, D.C., in March to make a pitch for $320 million in funds to widen 70.

“We need this road fixed,” he said. “That spillway came close to failing. It would have been a real disaster for people stuck on that highway if it had flooded.”

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