OROVILLE, Calif. – An evacuation order that forced nearly 200,000 California residents to flee from a damaged spillway remains in effect, as officials hurriedly try to finish the repairs to the tallest dam in the United States before a storm hits Wednesday night.
Around 188,000 residents fled the area Sunday night, out of fear that water from Lake Oroville would collapse the spillway and flood an area that is comparable to the size of Connecticut. The concrete portion of the spillway is sound, officials say. It is the natural spillway to the side – made of dirt – that is in danger.
The spillway is used to release surplus water from behind the 770-food Oroville Dam during emergencies. Torrential rains and heavy snows from the past few weeks damaged the spillway.
The lake behind the dam has fallen 13 feet since Sunday, but the Weather Channel says there is a 100 percent chance of rain Wednesday night, with totals of over an inch possible.
The dam was built to capture and store runoff from the mountains in 1968. The body of water it created, Oroville Lake, is the second largest reservoir in the state of California. The water is used to generate electricity, irrigate crops in the central valley and supply cities with drinking water.
Repair crews are using helicopters to drop rocks in the gap to try and stop the erosion.
“It would be a massive blow to the state’s water system if they lose Oroville,” Peter Gleick, a water researcher at the Pacific Institute, told the Desert Sun newspaper. “The question is, will it erode away the emergency spillway? Will there be a big uncontrolled release of water? Or will they be able to draw the lake down enough to prevent that?”
The fear is that a “30-foot wall of water coming out of the lake” will flood homes if the spillway fails, said Cal-Fire incident commander Kevin Lawson.
The Sunday night evacuation led to a scene reminiscent of a disaster movie.
“Everyone was running around. It was pure chaos,” evacuee Maggie Cabral told KFSN.
Sean Dennis, from nearby Yuba City, told NBC News, “Nothing like this has ever happened. We just grabbed what we could.”
But not everyone could get out.
“There’s nowhere to get gas,” Jennifer Neff, an evacuee, told The Sacramento Bee. “I’ve called roadside assistance – I’m on hold with them now. Do we call the police?”
Neff and others were trapped because gas stations in Marysville, Calif., were closed.
Oroville Dam, located 65 miles northeast of Sacramento, is holding back more than 3.5 million acre-feet of water.
Cracks were found in the dam’s spillway in 2009, but officials claimed that they had been repaired.
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