Observations and Lessons from the Oroville Dam Evacuation
A large emergency evacuation order shines from a billboard above a deserted gas station in downtown Oroville, Calif., Sunday night, Feb. 12, 2017, after water officials ordered residents to leave the communities downstream from the damaged Oroville Dam spillway. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
I felt obliged to pass on some observations and potential lessons on the developing problems at the Oroville Dam here in northern California.
For those who may not have heard, the Oroville Dam has had some major structural issues with the spillways, resulting in mandatory evacuations for as many as 180,000 people. It is an earth fill embankment dam on the Feather River east of the city of Oroville, California, in the United States. At 770 feet (230 m) high, it is the tallest dam in the U.S. and serves mainly for water supply, hydroelectricity generation, and flood control. It is supplied by the impoundment of the Feather River, and the Oroville Dam also manages an incredible amount of water; its full capacity measures 3,537,577 acre-feet, and it has a drainage area of 3,607 square miles.
News media had been reporting on some erosion in the main spillway of the dam since Tuesday, the 7th of February, 2017. There was some video that can be found where big chunks of concrete are seen being thrown through the air by the water. Up until late afternoon on the 12th of February, all news media were still reporting that while there was a problem with the main spillway, and for the first time in the dam’s history the emergency spillway began overflowing by about 6:00 am this morning, that everything was going to be okay. However, by about 4:40 pm, there were mandatory evacuation orders beginning to be issued for Oroville and low lying areas downstream. There are a number of communities downstream on the Feather River water course: Oroville, Gridley, Live Oak, Yuba City, Marysville, Plumas Lakes, Nicolaus, Linda, Olivehurst, and Knight’s Landing.
When I first saw this on the news today, I immediately called a friend from church that lives in the rural area east of Gridley and close to the Feather River in the flood zone evacuation map, to see what they were doing. This was at about 5:00 pm. They had been out walking and had not yet heard the mandatory evacuation news, and they were already about 15 minutes into a 60 minute mandatory evacuation. I told them that they could evacuate to our house, which is about a 40 minute drive in normal traffic. He said he would grab a few things, load his wife and kids, and head out immediately for our place. Our idea was that the more minutes that went by, the worse the traffic would be. We were right. My friend left about ten minutes after hanging up the phone and went by a slightly more circuitous route I told him about to avoid the bottleneck that I knew would be happening around the Yuba City/Marysville area. He arrived at our house in rural Placer County at about 6:50 pm. Even acting quickly and leaving less than thirty minutes after the evacuation order was announced, it still took him more than two times the normal travel time. At this point when I am writing this (about 10:30 pm), the news is reporting that it is now taking about three hours to travel one mile in the Yuba City/ Marysville bottleneck area.
We can also learn a few things from what my friend saw on his trip here. He got a jump on nearly everyone, by acting immediately and by having a plan on what he was going to take in an emergency. He also says he should have had a checklist, because he still forgot a few things. He encountered several crazy drivers, including one in a 4WD crew cab truck that was driving at over 100 MPH cutting in and out of traffic, obviously panicked although no true breach of the dam had yet occurred. This was just an average idiot. By 6:30 pm, evacuation orders were spreading, and as they went through one community with mandatory evacuation orders, they noted that no one was reacting to anything. The communication was not very effective either. Up until about 5:00 pm, there was little being said on either television or radio locally. He could find nothing on the radio news, until one mention on KFBK 1530 at about 6:30 pm began reporting on it. KFBK 1530 is the emergency broadcast station for the greater Sacramento Valley area. By about 7:00 pm, it was all over local news, and since the evacuation was affecting by some reports up to 180,000 people and other reports of 130,000 people, it was being covered on the national cable news to some degree. My daughter who was in Denver for business called us to check in per protocol after seeing it on Fox News. As my friend got south of Yuba City on Highway 99, he was going to cut across to the east at the community of Nicolaus. They are right next to the Feather River, with only the levee separating them from the river. As he drove through that small community, he saw no activity of people getting ready to evacuate. A little bit out of town he did see a couple of different rural property owners loading horses and household goods into trucks and trailers. Once on these rural back roads headed towards Lincoln, the traffic was minimal.
Ultimately, between 130,000 and 180,000 people from a dozen communities were affected by evacuation orders. By 9:00 PM, news was reporting 25-30 miles of bumper to bumper, nearly stopped traffic heading south toward Sacramento on Highway 99/70.
Fuel was obviously a problem for many, who for some reason sit around with near empty tanks rather than keeping them filled, as we all know we should. Don’t be lazy about that. It could cost you. News reports show very long lines at all fuel stations. Fuel quickly ran out at many of them in the affected flood zone, as people tried to fill up for the evacuation. Interesting note: It is often said to carry cash for purchases in emergency situations, but something worth thinking about too is that several fuel stations evacuated their personnel; however, fuel could still be purchased at them at the card reader on the pump but only with credit or ATM cards. So, it’s better to cover that base, too.
Where To Go
Lodging in hotels/motels in nearby communities in the safe zone are reported as filled to capacity by 10:15 PM. Having a place to go is critical. Talk to people ahead of time, and have a plan so you don’t end up stuck on the side of the road with no fuel and no place to go if you had it. Many of the evacuation centers filled very quickly, and people were left hunting alternative shelters.
Livestock and Animals
The adjacent communities, especially up north toward Chico, really stepped up to help those with horses that were evacuated and needed boarding for them. Several adjacent county fairgrounds were opened. A lot of evacuation centers were opened pretty quickly, most by 7:30 PM or so, that could take evacuees with small animals. Plan for your pets and your livestock, and know how long it will take to load them and move them.
At this point in the evening (now about 10:40), the Department of Water Resources is reporting that the water level is now below 901 feet, the level of the emergency spillway, and water is no longer spilling. Now, they are working on a plan to address the failed concrete in the main spillway and get a plan of action together before the next storms begin arriving next Thursday on the 16th of February. North bound highway 99 has now been reopened to traffic. Marysville remains shut down to access at this time. At after 11:00 pm, we are finally getting some comprehensive reports from the various emergency services agencies. I am sure that there will be some questions about why the initial damage to the main spillway that initiated this event was not addressed by the Department of Water Resources when it was first documented about three years ago, when we were in official drought status. Go figure. No doubt a custodian someplace will be the one to lose their job over it; there is always a scapegoat.
Blessings to all. Stay safe, and be prepared. You never know what might happen. – Behind Enemy Lines in the People’s Republik of Kalifornia