The area around a huge dam at California's second-largest reservoir is in a state of emergency, with some 180,000 residents of the area ordered to evacuate Sunday out of fears that part of Oroville Dam could fail. A glimmer of hope arrived late Sunday night, when officials said water had finally stopped pouring over the dam's emergency spillway.
The secondary spillway was in use because the main spillway had developed a huge hole, stressed by the need to release water accumulated from California's wet winter — and brought to a new crisis point by last week's heavy rains.
"So the lake rose 50 feet in just a few days," Dan Brekke of member station KQED tells Morning Edition, "and got up to this emergency spillway which had never been used since the dam went into service in 1968. And on Saturday morning, it began pouring over there."
Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency order last night, and residents of the area some 70 miles north of Sacramento were placed under evacuation orders at around 4:30 p.m. Sunday, after the reservoir rose to a record level — more than a foot above what's considered "full" — and its main spillway struggled to provide relief and its auxiliary spillway was seen at risk of failing.
Forces from the L.A. County Fire Department and other Southern California agencies were sent to offer aid last night, but were eventually called off Monday morning due to the dam situation's improvement.
Even as the evacuation orders were issued, officials had reason to hope that Lake Oroville would soon begin to recede, due to a drop in the amount of runoff water entering the lake and a dry weather forecast.
"The lake is considered full at 901 feet [above sea level], and it's at that level that it began pouring over an emergency spillway early Saturday," KQED reports.
The lake kept rising, surpassing its "full" level by more than a foot. Last night, Lake Oroville's water level finally dropped below 900 feet around midnight, in a trend that has continued into Monday morning.
As for the residents and evacuees, Brekke says he has seen many confused, scared people — one woman's son, he says, compared the evacuation to a zombie apocalypse. And another woman said she's still worrying over the family members who weren't able to leave.
That resident, Marilyn McKinney, told Brekke:
"My daughter-in-law is still there with her sister, who is bedridden, but we've got her in a wheelchair. They were supposed to be sending an ambulance or someone to help transport her out. And nobody has shown up for her yet. She called 911, and 911 said they weren't sending anybody else out."
Overnight, evacuation centers and shelters were still in the process of being outfitted with beds and blankets; several were set up at fairgrounds to handle the thousands of people leaving Oroville and nearby areas downstream.