Officials Were Warned That Dam's Spillway Could Fail, Reports Show

Feb 14, 2017
Originally published on February 14, 2017 8:14 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In California officials think they may have avoided a true catastrophe, but that is little comfort to people who are still out of their homes. The trouble was at the Oroville Dam the nation's tallest dam. It's just about 75 miles north of Sacramento.

The water level behind that dam has dropped now, and a damaged emergency spillway has been taken out of commission as workers rush to repair it. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, almost 200,000 residents near the dam remain evacuated.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: At an evacuation center in Chico, Calif., about 30 miles northwest of the dam, Edgar Mosqueda finishes lunch with a watchful eye on his young children. Mosqueda says he had been keeping track of the news about a problem at the dam. Still, he says, he was surprised by a neighbor's warning on Sunday.

EDGAR MOSQUEDA: He goes, hey, you got about an hour to get out, you know. So we just grabbed a couple of stuff and just took off.

GONZALES: He and his family were turned away from the first evacuation center they fled to.

So has anyone said anything to you about how long you'll be here?

MOSQUEDA: No, nobody. We don't know. I mean, we've been asking the officers here, the sheriffs, and they say they don't have an idea.

GONZALES: At a nearby table, Erica Stenholm and her partner Ronnie Vaughn have a distant look in their eyes. Like the Mosquedas, their extended family of 20 was turned away from one evacuation center.

ERICA STENHOLM: Yeah. So we're kind of lost for words right now. For us, it's very stressful.

GONZALES: All they've got right now, says Vaughn, are rumors about how long the evacuation will last.

RONNIE VAUGHN: Here and there, you know what I mean? In a couple days, 72 hours, 15 days. You know what I mean? Nobody knows nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Nothing's getting in my way.

TRACEY SMITH: And we got - what? - 12 kids and nowhere to go.

GONZALES: That's Tracey Smith, the matriarch of the family. State officials have few answers for her. In a news conference, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea he says he ordered the evacuation based on the best information he had, and he isn't prepared to lift it yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

KORY HONEA: I recognize that this is displacing a lot of people. I recognize what a hardship it has placed on our community. But again, as I told you last night, we did this because our primary purpose is to ensure public safety.

GONZALES: Officials are still releasing water through the dam's main spillway, not the one they feared would fail. They hope to drop the water level by 50 feet before a new series of storms arrives by Thursday.

Their work has come under even more scrutiny in the past 24 hours, as reports emerge that officials had been warned for more than a decade that the emergency spillway had a design flaw that could lead to a catastrophe. As one state official put it, this whole repair is going to be a multi-month project. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oroville, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.