Pressure on Dam Relieved; 2,300 Evacuated

Authorities released a fierce, brown river of water from a Southern California dam and evacuated 2,300 people from its path Friday after a temporary earthen barrier at the site began seeping water.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (search) unleashed more than 10,000 cubic feet of water per second to relieve pressure on the dam 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

"That's like a swimming pool every second," Corona Mayor Darrell Talbert said.

The water gushed into the Santa Ana River (search), whose banks were deep enough to handle the flow without flooding, said Lt. Col. John Guenther, deputy commander of the corps' Los Angeles district.

The National Weather Service (search) issued a flash flood watch in the area, but that was canceled in the late afternoon because seepage from the dam no longer was increasing. Corona's mandatory evacuation was called off in the late afternoon but police advised residents to stay away until Monday as a precaution.

The dam problems followed a series of storms since last week that turned Southern California into one big flood zone. The torrential rain triggered a mudslide in the tiny town of La Conchita that killed 10 people and damaged several homes. In all, 28 people died in the state from the storms.

Residents of La Conchita were told a mandatory evacuation order would be lifted later in the day Friday, but it would take two to four more weeks for water service to be restored and two to seven days for gas and electricity to be turned back on.

A number of people said it was critical for them to return to their homes — if only for a short time — to retrieve medicine, clothing and other personal items.

"I'll risk my life to go in. ... I need to get my things," said Anelle Beebe, a clothing store owner whose home of 24 years was deemed off-limits. Officials said her house was too close to the unstable bluff that sent 400,000 tons of mud cascading onto the town Monday.

In Corona, nearly 1,000 homes in town and about 100 people from a recreational vehicle park in an adjoining area were evacuated, forming a slow caravan of cars that snaked through the neighborhoods.

At an evacuation center in the high school gymnasium, Corona officials defended their decision to evacuate 330 mobile homes and 508 other homes in town.

Corona Police Chief Richard Gonzales said seepage at the base of the dam had increased fivefold after it was detected Thursday evening. The seepage came from a temporary earthen barrier protecting construction crews who are relocating outlet channels and raising the dam's height by 28 feet.

"I'm sorry if we woke you up, I'm sorry if we got you out of your home. ... I wasn't gonna lose any of you, period," he said to a round of applause.

"We're here to tell you the threat was real, the danger was real and we did the right thing," Talbert said.

The mayor said he was told by the Corps of Engineers that a dam break would have wiped out the neighborhoods in 21/2 minutes.

"That's not a risk I'm willing to take," he said.

Even after lifting the mandatory evacuation, authorities said people should stay away because possible weekend rain could put more stress on the dam or cause flooding.

At Corona Senior High School, as many as 100 people gathered in the gym. Cheerleaders played games with evacuated children while adults snacked on doughnuts and coffee or slept on cots as they awaited news of their homes.

Barbara Johnsen, 53, said a friend called her at 3 a.m. to say police were evacuating the mobile home park where she has lived for 20 years.

After checking with police to make sure it was true, she gathered up some clothes, photographs, important documents, her cat, Bussie, and her 80-year-old mother, Gurry Johnsen.

"First thing I took was the cat," she said.

They packed into the family motorhome and went to the evacuation center but Johnsen said she wouldn't return until at least Monday and planned to park the vehicle for the weekend.

"When they can say there's absolutely no danger, then I'll go back," she said.