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Dublin: 12°C Tuesday 28 September 2021

200,000 people ordered to evacuate their homes over dam risk

The evacuation was ordered yesterday afternoon after engineers spotted a hole on the concrete lip of the secondary spillway of the dam.

Water flows down Oroville Dam's main spillway.
Water flows down Oroville Dam's main spillway.
Image: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

CLOSE TO 200,000 people have been ordered to evacuate their homes as California authorities try to fix erosion of the emergency spillway at the nation’s tallest dam that could unleash uncontrolled flood waters if it fails.

About 150 miles northeast of San Francisco, Lake Oroville – one of California’s largest man-made lakes – had water levels so high that an emergency spillway was used Saturday for the first time in almost 50 years after its main spillway was damaged during recent heavy rain.

The evacuation was ordered yesterday afternoon after engineers spotted a hole on the concrete lip of the secondary spillway for the 770-foot-tall Oroville Dam and told authorities that it could fail within the hour.

“I’m just shocked,” said Greg Levias, who was evacuating with his wife, Kaysi.

“We have two boys and our dog,” said Kaysi Levias. “All the stuff we could fit in the trunk – clothes and blankets”.

What they couldn’t fit they piled as high as they could in their downstairs Yuba City apartment and joined the line of traffic attempting to leave the city where they had moved just three weeks ago.

APTOPIX Damage Dam CHP officer Ken Weckman directs traffic on Highway 70 as residents evacuate Marysville Source: Paul Kitagaki Jr/AP

Panicked and angry residents sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic hours after the evacuation order was given.

Raj Gill was managing a Shell station where panicky motorists got gas and snacks while they waited for gridlocked traffic to clear. His boss told him to close the station and flee himself, but he stayed open to feed a steady line of customers.

“You can’t even move,” he said. “I’m trying to get out of here too,” he said.

I’m worried about the flooding. I’ve seen the pictures — that’s a lot of water.

‘A lot of unknowns’

State Fire and Rescue Chief Kim Zagaris said at least 250 law enforcement officers from throughout the state are in the area or on their way to help the people evacuating.

A California Highway patrol spokesman said they would have two planes out today to help with search and rescue and traffic control.

Damage Dam Source: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Late last night officials noted water was no longer spilling over the eroded area but said the evacuation orders remained in place.

“There is still a lot of unknowns,” said Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea. “We need to continue to lower the lake levers and we need to give the Department of Water Resources time to fully evaluate the situation so we can make the decision to whether or not it is safe to repopulate the area.”

About 188,000 residents of towns in Yuba, Sutter and Butte counties remained under evacuation orders.

Acting Director Department of Water Resources Bill Croyle said officials will be able to assess the damage to the emergency spillway now that the lake levels have been lowered.

Damaged Dam Source: William Croyle/AP

The erosion at the head of the emergency spillway threatens to undermine the concrete weir and allow large, uncontrolled releases of water from Lake Oroville. Those potential flows could overwhelm the Feather River and other downstream waterways, channels and levees and flood towns in three counties.

Officials earlier Sunday stressed the dam itself was structurally sound.

The lake is a central piece of California’s government-run water delivery network, supplying water for agriculture in the Central Valley and residents and businesses in Southern California.

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