Erika D. Smith

There’s the threat of Oroville Dam. Then there’s Trump

Grace Moxley, fleeing a possible failure of Oroville Dam emergency spillway, keeps warm inside the shelter at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds on Sunday in Chico.
Grace Moxley, fleeing a possible failure of Oroville Dam emergency spillway, keeps warm inside the shelter at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds on Sunday in Chico. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

It all happened so quickly. Water poured down the rapidly eroding hillside of Oroville Dam on Sunday evening. Engineers with the state had to make a series of quick decisions to avert a catastrophic flood.

When they weren’t sure it would work, the Butte County Sheriff’s Department made the gutsy call to evacuate tens of thousands of residents in a matter of hours. By Monday, state and local officials were working alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency to determine the next steps in a still dangerous situation.

This is what should happen when people’s lives are in danger, this beautiful example of cooperation at all levels of government to resolve a crisis. Politics be damned.

But, I fear, that’s not how Donald Trump works. It doesn’t matter that most of the evacuees voted for him.

The president, incredibly, said nothing Sunday as people frantically fled three counties – Yuba, Sutter and Butte – in the nation’s most populous state. Instead, he tweeted about “fake news,” “enthusiastic supporters in Florida,” and how his “crackdown on illegal criminals” was merely about keeping his promise to rid the country of “gang members” and “drug dealers.”

On that request Gov. Jerry Brown made Friday to have parts of Northern California be declared a federal disaster area after separate storms left eight people dead and 1 million people without power? The president hasn’t said much about that either.

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.

There is a certain irony to California needing the federal government’s help after openly challenging so many of the policies coming out of Washington, D.C. Trump isn’t happy with the state and more than a few of his supporters have pointed that out.

“Let the libtards drown,” or some variation of that heartlessness, was actually a popular tweet on Sunday night. Seriously.

People in other states love to paint California with a broad liberal brush. But we Californians know better. We know that Oroville is squarely in the very red State of Jefferson.

Voters there, along with most of Butte, Yuba and Sutter counties, bought into Trump’s plan to shrink and shake up the federal government and Make America Great Again. But, as it turns out, shrinking and shaking up the government comes at a price, even for the loyal.

Not long after the November election, I wrote a column asking Trump supporters if they were feeling guilty about their vote for president. Most of the responses I got were a decisive “no,” followed by a curt explanation that the president was just getting started, but he clearly was going to keep his campaign promises unlike normal politicians.

Lo and behold, those readers were right. Trump is keeping his campaign promises. But my guess is his supporters weren’t counting on the president keeping all of his promises; just the ones they cherry-picked.

Take, for example, the hundreds of demonstrators who showed up at a town-hall meeting hosted by Rep. Tom McClintock earlier this month. The Republican-dominated district went for Trump, but constituents wanted McClintock to do more to save Obamacare, as well as reject the president’s plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico and his ban on visitors from Muslim countries.

“What do you expect seniors and people with disabilities with low income to do if you take away our Medicare and Medicaid that we rely on to literally stay alive?” asked Amanda Barnes, who was paralyzed from her waist down after a hit-and-run accident in a crosswalk five years ago.

Or farmers in the Central Valley who voted for Trump, but are now uneasy with the administration’s promised crackdown on undocumented immigrants, who work in their fields.

Last week, U.S. immigration agents conducted raids in several cities, including Los Angeles, nabbing people from their homes and their cars on their way to work. In a particularly troubling shift, agents picked up immigrants with no criminal record, capitalizing on a Trump executive order that substantially broadened the scope of whom immigration agents can target for deportation.

“If you only have legal labor, certain parts of this industry and this region will not exist,” Harold McClarty, a fourth-generation farmer in Kingsburg, told The New York Times. “If we sent all these people back, it would be a total disaster.”

He’s right to be worried. It’s not like millions of Trump supporters on the other side of the country, the unemployed workers in the industrial Midwest, are about to take jobs picking fruit in 115-degree California heat.

So much for campaign talk being just talk.

Hopefully, the Trump supporters evacuated on Sunday and now crashing in hotel rooms, on friends’ couches and in community centers won’t get thrown under the bus, too. It’s possible, though, which has got to hurt. #TrumpRegrets anyone?

The president, as he made plain on the campaign trail, has surrounded himself with advisers from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank calling for deep cuts to FEMA funding as a way to save $10.5 trillion in federal funding over the next decade. The costs would instead be pushed back to state and local governments.

This is why I’m not holding my breath about California getting a big chunk of federal disaster relief funding to help fix the Oroville Dam’s heavily damaged main spillway. The repairs could cost up to $200 million, according to some estimates.

On Monday night, however, Brown said he was optimistic about California and the federal government being able to work together to repair the spillway, despite the president’s previous threat to defund our “out of control” state.

“There will be different points of view,” the governor said. “But we’re all one America, and we all have challenges that we share in common. And as we defend America, we defend California, and vice versa.”

For sure, California is dependent on the federal government for investments in building, shoring up and repairing levees to prevent emergencies like what happened at the aging Oroville Dam. Of the nation’s nearly 90,000 dams, about 17 percent were classified as “high hazards” in 2013, CityLab reported, meaning that a failure would cost human lives.

And yet, the federal government – not to mention states – has invested shockingly little on such projects in recent years, spending about as much on flood recovery as prevention. Trump has vowed to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, but it’s unclear if levees and dams will be included.

Even in California, the center of “the resistance,” we need help and cooperation from the federal government. It’s not about petty politics or about Trump’s twisted version of loyalty, assuming he even honors it. It’s about saving lives.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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