More than 500 Calif. inmates evacuated due to dam flooding dangers

Almost 200,000 Californians faced an indefinite stay in shelters on Tuesday as engineers worked around the clock to fix the United States' tallest dam before more rain arrives.

The rising water topped over the earthen backup spillway, which has a concrete top, for the first time in the dam's 50-year history over the weekend. "The reports I've read, if there's a catastrophic break it might take only four hours so that's the amount of time we have to get out", says farmer Tom Schultz.

However, with uncertainties that a fix consisting of rocks and boulders piled onto the damaged spillway would hold as renewed rains threaten the area, officials warned the evacuation could be renewed.

Water is no longer flowing through the damaged spillway, but the situation remains "unpredictable". The goal is to see the level at 860 feet by Thursday when inflows should begin from the expected storms.

The county operates 14 dams and reservoirs. Crews working round the clock since Sunday have made progress stabilizing this and another spillway damaged by water.

Officials lifted mandatory evacuations for communities downstream from Lake Oroville Tuesday afternoon.

Evacuees at the fairgrounds became impromptu wedding planners and guests thanks to a Facebook post.

Forecasters said the first two storms could drop a total of 13 centimetres of rain in higher elevation - but the third storm, set to start as early as Monday, could be more powerful.

When 188,000 residents in the vicinity of the Oroville Dam were ordered to leave their property on Sunday fearing spillway collapse and flooding, some were forced to abandon animals and pets.

As of Wednesday, Lake Oroville had been drained 23 feet since the height of the problem Sunday.

Officials say the lake is draining at 100,000 cubic feet per second, reducing the reservoir about a foot every three hours.

Storms are forecast this week but its now believed the lake's levels are low enough to cope.

Authorities on Monday told almost 200,000 evacuated residents it could be up to two weeks before they secure an eroded section of Lake Oroville's emergency spillway enough to let them return to their homes without the threat of a catastrophic flood.

Croyle said officials are also monitoring the watersheds and preparing for future runoff. Wenger's Central Valley Region, a stretch of lowlands that extends from Sacramento to Bakersfield, was the hardest hit in the state, according to analysis from the University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences.

  • Larry Hoffman