Thousands told to evacuate in face of California dam collapse

The Oroville Dam lies upstream from the city of Oroville in Northern California. It is 44 feet taller than the Hoover Dam.

"If it had collapsed - a catastrophic collapse - there would be a 30-foot wall of water descending on the town of Oroville", said U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, the Democratic congressman for District 3.

The lake is a central piece of California's government-run water delivery network, supplying water for the state's Central Valley agricultural heartland and homes and businesses in Southern California.

The 770 ft., high Oroville Dam is a key part of California's water management, sitting at the head of the Feather River, with Lake Oroville behind it.

Authorities said there was no threat of the dam itself failing, but warned that the substantial flow of water that would come if the spillways gave way would be extremely risky to those living in valley towns below. The water carved a massive hole in the earth. However, this was to no avail.

Early on Monday emergency crews prepared to use helicopters to drop bags of rocks to shore-up the spillway, according to Sacramento television station KCRA.

It spread across the concrete-lined channel, and on Saturday the emergency spillway was used for the first time since the dam was completed in 1968.

About 188,000 people in downstream communities had been ordered to flee on Sunday afternoon as water was still gushing over the top of the wide auxiliary spillway. It's similar to the drain on a bathtub which prevents a tub from overflowing.

"They have what they expect to be an imminent failure of the axillary spillway", said Mike Smith, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Initially the system appeared to be working, but on Sunday engineers spotted a hole in the emergency spillway. This filled the river below with mud and debris making it much more unsafe. A UC Berkeley Engineering Professor says the Orovile Dam situation is a wake-up call, not only for those who've evacuated but for the entire country.

California's Department of Water Resources on Sunday evening ordered the evacuation of around 200,000 people from towns lying below Lake Oroville. Times. "We had to make a very critical and hard decision to initiate the evacuation of the Oroville area". The order included activating assistance from California's National Guard.

At least 130,000 people have been asked to evacuate. Some left pets behind. With more rain in the forecast there's no telling how long that could take. Officials are trying to relieve pressure on the dam and contain the lake. However, a new round of storms will strike the area on Thursday, and there is no estimate of how much water will be added to the reservoir. "I was like, 'Really?' He was like, 'Yeah.'" Even though water levels have receded 24 hours later, evacuations remain in place and Geltz said they should.

In aerial footage, water is seen roaring down the dam's damaged spillway, looking like the world's most terrifying waterslide.

  • Arturo Norris