Before leaving town late Sunday, Vila Smith, one of nearly 200,000 Oroville Dam evacuees, stopped at home to gather her son’s Bible, which he’d left behind. She didn’t grab anything for herself, except a few important documents like her birth certificate.
“It’s all replaceable,” Smith, who works at Walmart, said of the belongings. “Bodies are not.”
Smith and the others who jammed roadways and clogged fueling stations along routes out of town had been put through a tumultuous week, keeping watch over reports about the failing health of the massive dam. State water officials had warned about erosion, though they stressed that conditions remained stable. Then, in an instant, communities along the Feather River Basin were told to evacuate the area over the potentially hazardous emergency spillway.
It was not the largest number of people evacuated in the history of California disasters, but none of the others appear to have combined the scale and immediacy of Sunday’s departure of tens of thousands of residents along the Interstate 70 corridor.
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On Monday came grumbling about the jarring nature of the order and the resulting traffic.
But as the evacuees clustered at fairgrounds, temporary shelters and area motels awaiting word on when the orders would be lifted, law enforcement officials defended their collective response to the situation unfolding at the dam.
“We needed to act quickly,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told reporters in Oroville after mounting concerns. “The fact that we were monitoring it closely allowed us to respond very quickly when that was the appropriate thing to do.”
Honea, however, said he recognized the frustrations of evacuees, some of whom felt like they were sent mixed messages about the spiraling risks.
“That was not a decision that I made lightly,” he added.
Even at their best, large-scale evacuations of people are an exercise in controlled chaos, law enforcement experts said. That Honea and officials in charge of the Oroville situation managed so far with some heavy traffic and a few flared tempers speaks to the planning and coordination that goes into such hairy situations.
“Everybody wants everything to run perfectly and flawlessly,” said Jim Wegner, the undersheriff in Amador County. “ ‘Why did this happen?’ they ask. “But there are impacts. Those roads weren’t designed to have 200,000 cars pushed on them in a matter of hours. That (traffic) is going to happen.
“You have to be cautious and expect the worst,” Wegner added. “If anything less than the worst happens, we are pleasantly surprised.”
Before issuing the order, Honea huddled with experts from the California Department of Water Resources, who warned about the increasing perils of erosion.
The Sheriff’s Department had plans in place for a disaster, and set out to inform the public through its mass notification phone system that also allows citizens to sign up for text and email alerts. Sheriff’s deputies were called in from home, joining authorities from an array of other departments, said Miranda Bowersox, spokeswoman for the sheriff in Butte County.
There were too many homes to canvass door to door, so deputies relied on a public address system. People with disabilities were offered paratransit.
“I am sure that felt like a very chaotic time for people,” Bowersox said.
Other notable emergencies prompting mass evacuations have happened in Southern California.
During the 2003 firestorm, more than 80,000 people evacuated from the San Bernardino mountains as flames approached. Residents, though, had several hours of notice, said Gerald Newcombe, president of the Arrowhead Communities Fire Safe Council.
In addition, most mountain residents are well-versed in the best ways down the hills during fire scares.
“It wasn’t panicked at all,” Newcombe added.
In 2007, more than 515,000 San Diego County residents were rushed from homes and businesses as the fires bore down.
“We take pride in the fact that, unlike in the 2003 fires, no evacuees were trapped or killed by fire while evacuating,” Ron Lane of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services said at a 2011 hearing.
Among the recommendations by a blue-ribbon commission created after the 2003 fires was for local governments to improve education about emergency evacuations. The report recommended the development of a comprehensive public outreach program that includes emergency evacuation education.
During one of the panel’s hearings, experts discussed a disastrous scenario: that fires would blow west into Los Angeles. If that had happened, evacuations would have been impossible, officials concluded.
Yet, even in a disaster-prone state such as California, the subject of how to safely evacuate people fleeing a disaster or potential disaster hasn’t received enough attention, said former Assemblyman Pedro Nava, who led the Legislature’s joint committee on emergency preparedness.
“Moving large numbers of people is so incredibly complicated, and it’s made even more complicated by the fact that you have so many people making up their own minds about how best to respond,” he said.
Perhaps a closer parallel to this weekend’s situation is the risk posed by tsunamis. In 1964, a seismic sea wave triggered by a massive earthquake in Alaska crashed into Crescent City on the state’s northern coast in the middle of the night, killing 11 people. Residents said they had received no warning from officials.
Today, many communities along California’s coast continue to have no tsunami evacuation plans available to the public, officials said.
Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, vice chairman of the emergency committee, said the panel likely will hold hearings on the Oroville Dam emergency and possible improvements.
“Did we ever anticipate that situation happening like it is now? And if we weren’t, why weren’t we?” Rodriguez, D-Pomona, asked Monday.
Meantime, Bowersox of the Butte County Sheriff’s Office said the county was already working on its plans to ensure the safe and orderly return of people to their homes.
After having to evacuate for flood threats before, Gail Agrifoglio, a 67-year-old retired shipping forklift driver, said she was used to it by now. She wasn’t worried about losing any of her things – though she acknowledged not having flood insurance for her house.
“If it goes, it goes,” Agrifoglio said, her raspy laugh cutting the cool air.