A race against the weather to avoid disaster at California dam

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OROVILLE, California (CNN) — There’s no word yet when the 188,000 people who evacuated their homes near Northern California’s Oroville Dam can return.

Mandatory evacuation orders remain in place for Butte, Sutter and Yuba counties Tuesday.

Authorities are scrambling to reduce Lake Oroville’s level by 50 feet and repair damages to a critical flood control measure ahead of a storm expected later this week.

Residents were ordered to leave the area Sunday after massive damage to an emergency spillway — which lets excess water out when Lake Oroville’s level rises to overflow the dam. If the spillway fails, it could flood communities downstream with what one official warned could be a “30-foot wall of water.”

“I recognize this has displaced a lot of people, and I recognize the hardships it’s created on our communities,” said Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea of the mandatory evacuations. “We did this because our primary purpose is to ensure public safety.”

He said officials were working on a “repopulation plan” to get people back home safely.

Meanwhile, crews are trying to fix the erosion on the emergency spillway with rocks and gravel. Helicopters dropped bags of rocks into the gouged portion in an effort to plug the hole.

Sleeping in cars, riding out the evacuation

As repairs are underway, evacuees have gone to shelters, pitched tents in parking lots and found makeshift arrangements for what could stretch for days.

Pat and Keith Dailey, a couple from Yuba City, slept in their car with their four dogs at the Colusa County Fairgrounds.

“It was miserable,” Pat Dailey told CNN affiliate KGO. “We didn’t sleep. There was people walking and people talking all night long.”

But they’re staying put.

“We’re kind of on the safe side,” said her husband, Keith. “We won’t go back, until they tell us it’s safe.”

California Governor Jerry Brown sought to assure residents during a press conference Monday: “We’re doing everything we can to get this dam in shape so [evacuees] can return and live safely without fear.”

He said he had requested federal response aid.

Cautious optimism

As of Monday night, officials sounded a note of cautious optimism about containing the threat of flooding.

The Oroville Dam, the tallest dam in the United States, provides flood control for the region. The dam itself has no structural issues. But the two spillways that release water from the lake to prevent overflow, have structural problems.

The main spillway, which is lined, or paved, has a hole almost the size of a football field and at least 40 feet deep to form in the lower part of the channel. It can’t be fixed immediately and needs to be used through March, which marks the end of what’s been a very heavy rainy season.

It’s being used to drain the lake at a rate of 100,000 cubic feet per second in an effort to reduce the water level. Normal flows down the main spillway are about 55,000 cubic feet per second.

The emergency spillway, which is an embankment covered with trees, is a last resort and was used for the first time in its 48-year history on Saturday. Lake water began washing into it this weekend and prompted the evacuation order when officials noticed damage on the spillway.

The lake water flows into the emergency spillway when it reaches 901 feet. As of Monday 6 p.m., the water levels decreased to 894 feet.

How did we get here?

Questions remain over how it got to this point at Lake Oroville. Why weren’t more efforts made to prevent spillway erosion after concerns were raised more than 10 years ago?

California Department of Water Resources Acting Director Bill Croyle said he was “not familiar with 2005 documentation or conversation” about spillway concerns and emphasized the efforts underway to understand the current dynamics of the dam.

“We’re going to continue to work on the challenges we have,” he said.

California’s governor speaking at a press conference Monday defended the state’s flood infrastructure and said he welcomed “more scrutiny” as efforts continue.

Oroville as a ghost town

After the evacuations, downtown Oroville remained a ghost town. Businesses shut down. Scattered police officers manned roadblocks. Stores sat dark and empty with sandbags stacked in front of doors. Empty gas stations had yellow tape ringed around the pump to indicate there was no more fuel.

All schools in Sutter and Yuba counties have been closed. Affected schools in Butte County are shut until Friday.

RaeLynn Jones and her fiance, who had fled their Oroville apartment near Feather River on Sunday, came back to their home Monday to pick up more of their items.

She noted that her building was unscathed, but at Feather River, the water level nearly reached the treetops. Surrounding playgrounds, gazebos and sports fields were completely submerged, she said.

Jones is staying at her fiance’s home, which is on higher ground. Nine people and three dogs are sharing the house where they’re riding out the evacuation order. With everything closed, they’re eating whatever is left in the kitchen and snacks from the gas station. For now, all they can do is wait.

Defying the evacuation

Others decided to stay put despite the evacuation order.

Brianne Lawrence who lives across from Feather River, brought her family back after rushing out of town on Sunday and getting stuck in traffic.

She told CNN affiliate KRCR that she lives on a hill. “It’s going to have to come up probably, at least 10 times what it is now for us to be flooded,” she said.

Her grandfather is also staying put in nearby Thermalito.

“I’m ready to leave at any second, but I don’t think the threat’s that great at the moment,” said Brian Pulley to KRCR.