As Oroville Dam threatens, people of goodwill step up

Oroville Dam evacuees wait it out in Chico: 'As soon as they say I can go, I'm going home'

Jim Eversole and his wife, Barbara, talk about their evacuation from the Oroville area to the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico on Monday, February 13, 2017. They were evacuated under threat of flooding after damage to the Oroville Dam spillway.
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Jim Eversole and his wife, Barbara, talk about their evacuation from the Oroville area to the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico on Monday, February 13, 2017. They were evacuated under threat of flooding after damage to the Oroville Dam spillway.

Questions abound in the midst of the Oroville Dam crisis. Why did inspections not detect flaws that led the huge concrete spillway to rupture? Why was the earthen emergency spillway not buttressed to handle a deluge of this season’s magnitude?

Should state officials have insisted that urban and agricultural users who depend on Lake Oroville pay to line the emergency spillway with concrete, as environmentalists urged in 2005? Stuart Leavenworth and Sean Cockerham of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau and The Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Sabalow have detailed that question.

Officials are scrambling, not only for answers, but to avoid a calamitous break that would inundate great swaths of California. Meanwhile, any doubts about this state’s resilience are being answered, as Californians do what people of goodwill do.

At the direction of law enforcement, 188,000 evacuees have fled the path of the Feather River below the huge earthen dam that has become dangerously unstable.

In Chico, at Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, 20 AmeriCorps workers with strong backs assembled cots that arrived at 3 a.m. for many of the 1,000 evacuees who had no place else to sleep.

Some had arrived in walkers and wheelchairs. Many fled without remembering to grab their medication. They all arrived uncertain of what would come next.

“People are very scared, especially the elderly who are here by themselves,” said Bob Mulholland, who lives in Chico and went to the fairgrounds Sunday night to lend a hand however he could. “Sometimes, it’s just holding someone’s hands.”

Oroville evacuees at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico talk about their situation.

At 4 a.m. on Monday, Judy Irby, a bookkeeper at the Nugget grocery in Woodland, heard someone banging at the store’s back door. The store is closed at that hour, and for safety reasons, she wouldn’t ordinarily have opened it. But she recognized the guy causing the commotion.

Matt Rexroad, the veteran Yolo County supervisor, explained that roughly 350 evacuees spent the night at the Yolo County Fairgrounds, and were about to wake up hungry and thirsty.

In short order, three Nugget employees filled and folded 150 breakfast burritos, and enough water to wash it down. Oh, and throw in diapers and formula. Someone else picked up utensils at Costco. And put it on Rexroad’s credit card.

Not that it matters, but Rexroad is a Republican campaign consultant, and Mulholland is a Democratic operative. In an emergency, partisan identities don’t matter.

Yuba City evacuee Merida Lozano waits at the Yolo County Fairgrounds for word that it is safe to return home. She and many others have been displaced by evacuations after damage to the Oroville Dam spillway. Monday, February 13, 2017.

Today, the people who live downstream from Oroville Dam need shelter. But the Department of Water Resources estimated in a 2013 report that one of in five Californians lives in areas threatened by floods, and there are more than 1,500 dams and reservoirs in the state.

No one should believe that Oroville Dam, so fundamental to California’s water delivery system, is the only one at risk. That report placed the cost of levee and other flood-control projects at as much as $52 billion, but that only counted the projects then being planned.

“If $52 billion is assumed to represent current investments needed to provide risk reduction against a 100-year storm event, then total investment needed to reduce risk against the 500-year flood event could be assumed to be several times that amount,” the report said. “It can be conservatively estimated that more than $100 billion is needed to reduce risk statewide.”

That report made scant mention of Oroville Dam. Today, as officials lowered Lake Oroville’s level as quickly as possible, careful not to further damage the hobbled spillways, that dam no doubt is at the top of the list. Reconstruction will cost hundreds of millions.

San Joaquin Valley farmers, Santa Clara County residents and Southern Californians, who rely on the State Water Project for their water, will need to pay their fair share. But all California taxpayers will help pay, and Uncle Sam should chip in, as well.

We all have a stake in ensuring that Oroville functions properly, just as we have a stake in understanding why, despite the inspections, issues at Oroville were not addressed sufficiently to head off this crisis.

We know, too, that in emergencies, good people understand that they need to pitch in.

Large bags of rocks were taken by truck and flown by helicopter to the eroded site on the emergency spillway on Oroville Dam on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017.

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