Nearly 200,000 People Evacuate Near Oroville Dam In California

Feb 13, 2017
Originally published on February 13, 2017 9:39 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now we're going to get an update on the situation at the Oroville Dam in northern California. It is the tallest dam in the country, and over the weekend, state officials ordered the evacuation of almost 200,000 people who live in low-lying communities nearby. The problems are two spillways that were designed to take pressure off the dam. The main spillway developed a sinkhole last week, so another emergency spillway was opened. And 24 hours later, officials started worrying it could fail.

NPR's Richard Gonzales is on the line from Oroville. That's about 75 miles north of Sacramento. Hello there.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Hello, Kelly.

MCEVERS: What's the latest word from officials at the dam?

GONZALES: Well, what they're saying right now is that no more water is coming over the emergency spillway, the one that they were fearful would fail. They're saying that they've acted in the interest of maintaining safety for the community, and they're calling their operation a double success - no water causing any failure and no catastrophe yet to hurt anybody.

What they are trying to do is get the lake level to fall. Right now their objective is to lower it by about 50 feet. And what that will do is help prepare for future storms which are scheduled to come in as early as two or three days from now. They continue to monitor erosion.

And they're also trying to tamp down rumors that their evacuation order will be rescinded. They say this is a very dynamic situation. They're making it clear the evacuation still remains in effect. They recognize that a lot of people have been displaced, but their primary purpose is public safety, and they're not sure. They're saying it's a very difficult decision when to allow people to return to their homes.

MCEVERS: Quickly just explain what led us to this place in the first place. Like, what was the concern that led to the evacuation?

GONZALES: OK, so last Tuesday at the main spillway, they noticed erosion in the main spillway. They became so concerned about that that by Saturday of this past weekend, they employed the emergency spillway. The emergency spillway had never been tested. By Sunday, they became concerned that the emergency spillway could collapse, and that's when the evacuation order went out.

I've been told by people in this community that they got the word around 3:30, 4 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, and the instructions were very clear. This is not a drill; leave now. And so you've evacuation order covering 30 counties. And you know, hotels and motels all around this area are packed full. Freeways were jammed. But right now, whenever you go onto a freeway, it is completely empty.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Richard Gonzales reporting from the Oroville Dam in northern California. Thank you.

GONZALES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.