Panic below the dam: evacuees describe chaotic evacuations

Colleen Kingsley lives four blocks away from the Oroville Dam spillway. Now at a shelter in Chico, she described a chaotic scene getting out on Sunday.
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Colleen Kingsley lives four blocks away from the Oroville Dam spillway. Now at a shelter in Chico, she described a chaotic scene getting out on Sunday.
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Water & Drought

‘It’s just wait and wait and wait.’ Thousands displaced in Oroville Dam scare wait for word

By Tony Bizjak, Andy Furillo and Sam Stanton

tbizjak@sacbee.com

February 13, 2017 04:59 PM

The Oroville Dam crisis has created a mass migration of evacuees, sending 188,000 people streaming across Northern California looking for shelter in parking lots, emergency centers and hotel rooms while they wait and fume over not knowing when they can go home.

“It’s just wait and wait and wait some more,” said Grant Gallaway, who spent Sunday night sitting in a chair in the Oroville Hospital emergency room wondering when he would be allowed to walk back to his apartment one block from the Feather River, just below the compromised dam.

Residents of Oroville were evacuated Sunday by a series of automated calls, text alerts and law enforcement officers cruising the streets telling people to flee. Gallaway doesn’t have a car, so he just headed to the hospital, which sits on higher ground.

Oroville Vice Mayor Janet Goodson found herself marooned in Red Bluff after evacuating Sunday night. “To be honest with you, there is a degree of frustration,” she said.

The Butte County sheriff, appearing with officials from Cal Fire and the Department of Water Resources on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, said that a rumored lifting of the evacuation order that followed problems with Oroville Dam's emergency spillway was

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Authorities who ordered the evacuations of Oroville and nearby communities Sunday afternoon said Monday they were working on plans to return residents, but could not predict how long it would take before they decided it was safe.

“This is still a dynamic situation,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said at a press briefing Monday afternoon. “We need to have time to make sure that before we allow people back into those areas it is safe to do so.”

Honea said the decision to order evacuations was difficult, and said deciding when to allow people to return “is equally difficult.”

“I recognize that this is displacing a lot of people,” he said. “I recognize what a hardship it has placed upon our community.”

Complicating the issue is the fact that new storms are predicted to hit the waterlogged area Thursday while emergency officials are still trying to repair the erosion near the emergency spillway they feared was going to fail on Sunday. On Monday afternoon, construction vehicles dropped loads of rocks on the emergency spillway in an effort to strengthen it.

“It’s a risk analysis,” Honea said of deciding when to call off the evacuation. “You’re trying to understand the various elements. You’re trying to balance the risks. … I wish it was as simple as a checklist.”

Sunday’s evacuation order had a ripple effect across the north state, filling hotels in Chico and Sacramento and sending people scurrying to bunk with friends. The last major evacuation from the area over flood fears was 1997, when about 100,000 people were displaced.

Cars clogged the roads leading from evacuated communities such as Oroville, Marysville, Yuba City and Plumas Lake.

In a brief press conference Monday evening, Gov. Jerry Brown said he had spoken with an unidentified member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet and asked for federal assistance to help with the state’s response to the dam emergency.

Oroville evacuees at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico talk about their situation.

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Prisoners moved, patients stay

When evacuees streaming south on Highway 99 hit Sacramento’s Natomas community, many of them made a beeline for hotels and fast-food restaurants.

The Staybridge Suites on Promenade Circle rented 30 rooms to evacuees Sunday night, according to general manager Leua Malzahn. Few ventured to downtown Sacramento, however. The Hyatt and Citizen hotels reported renting five rooms each to evacuees, while the Residence Inn rented 12 rooms, according to Mike Testa, spokesman for Visit Sacramento.

Residents downstream of the Oroville Dam weren’t the only ones forced to leave Sunday. Inmates held at the Butte County Jail were loaded up into vans and other vehicles and escorted out of the danger zone Sunday night in a caravan.

“All 578 inmates from the Butte County Jail were safely transported to the Santa Rita Jail, located in the city of Dublin, in Alameda County,” the sheriff’s office said. “This is the first time an evacuation order has been issued at the Butte County Jail.”

Conversely, people inside the Oroville Hospital and Rideout Memorial Hospital in Marysville stayed put.

Robert Wentz, the Oroville Hospital CEO, said the hospital was operating normally, although patients were moved Sunday night to the second floor “out of an abundance of caution.”

The hospital is on a hill, out of what he called the inundation zone. It has 95 patients, and is fully staffed.

“Evacuation of acutely ill people is very serious, so it is generally better to shelter in place,” he said. “We feel the patients are very safe.”

Not everyone was able to escape Oroville last night.

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Oroville Mayor Linda Dahlmeier, who has been in Sacramento since Sunday after flying in from a conference in San Diego, said she is especially concerned about the economic hardship to the town’s many elderly, retired residents and others on fixed incomes.

Some have had to pay for motels out of town while they wait out the mandatory evacuation order.

“This is particularly stressful for them,” she said. “We hope to get people home as soon as possible, but only when it is safe.”

She said she has broached the subject with state officials of getting some financial help for Oroville residents, but said it’s too early to know whether that’s possible.

Empty neighborhoods calm

Rumors of looting began to spread late Sunday. Officials dismissed them and said there had been only one incident that could be considered related to the evacuation.

Oroville police arrested one person and identified a second suspect after someone smashed windows at a Dollar General and a liquor store Sunday night, stealing alcohol and food.

“Is it looting?” police spokesman Joe Deal asked. “That (term) probably does apply. We’re just calling it burglary.”

Otherwise, there had been few calls for service and few problems in town since the Sunday night evacuation call. Deal said 25 officers were on patrol Monday, focused on residential neighborhoods and low-lying areas near the river. Oroville police are being supplemented by officers from the Orland Police Department, the CHP and the Sheriff’s Department.

Most calls Monday have come from people asking police to check on the welfare of relatives or friends.

Police say they have heard of instances of people returning to town but say they are advising against that.

“A lot of people are calling, asking if they can come back, and we are discouraging that,” Deal said.

The town of Oroville itself was largely quiet and empty Monday morning, although cars drove to and from residential areas. Cars, including emergency vehicles, were backed up at the one gas station in the center of town that remained open. Dump trucks traveled back and forth up the dam road.

Jacob Asher, Brandon Phillips and their roommates left Sunday night in a hurry, taking their cat Honda with them, to spend the night in Bangor at a relative’s house.

Monday morning, when they saw that the weather was clear, they decided to head back to their house in a small residential area in central Oroville. The roads were clear, and there was no law enforcement blocking their re-entry into town.

“We checked the news and the water was down 3 feet, so we decided to come back and will stay here and wait until it rains,” Asher said. “It’s nerve-wracking.”

South of Oroville in Yuba City, many residents were returning to their homes despite the evacuation order. Though many businesses remained closed in Yuba City and Highway 99 remained closed northbound at Bridge Street, other businesses were open, and customers stood in line at a fast-food restaurant next to Yuba-Sutter Mall. Meantime, shoppers crowded parking lots at a shopping center at Butte House Road and Stabler Lane in the city’s western half.

Frustration at state

Thousands of others, however, heeded the order to get out and made the best of it.

The relative bustle of Yuba City was in stark contrast to Marysville, across the Feather River in Yuba County, where a mandatory evacuation remained in force and much of the city remained abandoned Monday.

At the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley, about 650 people spent the night Sunday, including Linda resident Betsy Ferguson, who was reclining Monday on a cot with a friend’s Jack Russell terrier, Montana, and her beloved Chihuahua, Mikey.

Ferguson was thoroughly unhappy with the situation. Her back hurt, she missed her bed at home and she said she was angry at state officials for not maintaining the Oroville Dam or anticipating the danger.

“Honestly, they should have taken care of this a long time ago,” she said. “They didn’t do anything about it.”

After a 2 1/2 -hour drive Sunday night to the emergency shelter, she said, “I have more aches and pains than I care to say. But you know, this situation is way over our heads.”

Shaun Glenn, a forklift driver from Linda, said he had a hard time relaxing as he ran into a massive traffic jam heading out Linda on Sunday night while wondering if floodwaters might soon follow.

“We kind of thought we were ahead of it, but we wanted to be safe,” he said, near a tent that he and his girlfriend, Mickie Jones, erected to shelter their 4-year-old goddaughter, Roxy Nichter, and her Chihuahua mix, Chopper.

He had packed up pork chops, steaks and “everything we could from our freezer” and brought a Coleman stove for cooking. Even though the Salvation Army was providing food, Glenn said he was going to make the best of it with an unscheduled camping and cookout break that he figured might last for a while.

Others expressed frustration over their situation.

At Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico, Ralph Frazia, 76, a retired airline engineer, sat on the edge of his cot Monday scared and angry.

He doesn’t have a car or any relatives, and he lives alone in an apartment in Oroville. He said a Butte County sheriff’s deputy evacuated him from his place after dark on Sunday and hustled him out before he could retrieve his cellphone. The deputy gave him a ride to the fairgrounds, and all he had were the clothes he was wearing, a gray pair of sweatpants, a blue sweatshirt and a pair of shower shoes.

“Once you get out, you don’t go back,” Frazia said. “But I can assure you, management will make sure I pay the rent, and everything will be stolen from my apartment. A big-screen TV, a lot of things. I was charging my cellphone, and I was told just get out of here. All I took was what I was wearing. I’m going to lose everything.”

Merlin Watson, 66, a retired welder, showed up before dawn at the Silver Dollar shelter. He left his home a mile south of Oroville on Sunday and split the night sitting in a Walmart parking lot and then a Winco lot.

“About 4 in the morning we heard they had the place here, so we showed up,” Watson said. “Got here just in time to sleep about an hour, when they decided it was time to wake up. They wake you up here just like they do in jail, they turn up the lights.”

Peter Hecht, Darrell Smith, Richard Chang and Angela Hart contributed.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak