by Nicholas Pendergast
Terror has stricken the heart of Northern California. Butte County is no longer a safe place for people to stay. 220,000 people call this county home, but as of last night, over 188,000 of them were ordered to evacuate by California state Gov. Jerry Brown.
The cause? Oroville Dam suffered a catastrophic failure of an auxiliary support system, leaking tons of water from the Lake Oroville reservoir into the Feather River and surrounding areas. The Oroville Dam is the tallest dam in the United States, standing at 770 feet, and impounds all of California’s second largest water works reservoir, or at least it did before the dam’s spillway burst yesterday. The auxiliary spillway was the second failure in the last week, after the primary spillway collapsed into a 200-feet-long and 30-feet-deep hole.
About 1,100 members of the state’s National Guard were sent up to Oroville with 100 members of the California Highway Patrol. Hundreds of other emergency workers are working around the clock in a massive effort organized by the state’s Office of Emergency Services.
Neighboring Yolo County has opened its fairgrounds to provide a shelter for the evacuees. Other residents across the state are also provided shelter for their neighbors in Butte, by opening their homes in this time of desperation. Chico, a city of about 86,000 people, is the most populous in the county; Red Cross has erected emergency shelters as well, although if the dam continues to rupture water out into the county, they could all be sitting ducks.
Residents sat in bumper to bumper traffic for hours in a state of panic and rage. One resident said he sat in traffic for over five hours just to make the trip to a hotel only 55 miles away from his house.
“We both were kind of shocked, nothing like this has ever happened,” Sean Dennis, a 32-year-old chef, told reporters after he and his wife grabbed what they could to escape.
“You can almost see the panic happening,” said Heather Sutton, a 22-year-old college student.
Raj Gill, a Shell Gas manager stayed at his business to help feed the line of evacuees desperate to fuel up for the arduous journey out. “You can’t even move,” Raj said. “I’m trying to get out of here too. I’m worried about the flooding. I’ve seen the pictures – that’s a lot of water.”
A state official said that this catastrophe was the worst seen in modern times.
“I’ve been in close contact with emergency personnel managing the situation in Oroville throughout the weekend and it’s clear the circumstances are complex and rapidly changing,” Gov. Brown told the press. “The state is directing all necessary personnel and resources to deal with this very serious situation.”
The state is currently using helicopters and industrial sandbags to help stop the spreading of water from the Feather River. Large trucks with specialized equipment were lining up around the affected area to suppress the flooding, while the police and emergency vehicles worked tirelessly to search for anyone in need of help. Thus far, there have been zero casualties; search and rescue operations will remain in place while the state works to get everyone away from the disaster. Doug Carlson of the California Department of Water Resources said that lake levels dropped, thanks to the deeds of emergency rapid response teams working overnight, but the county has a lot more water that needs to be contained before they’re in the clear.