Warnings

Thousands of California dam evacuees allowed to go home, told to stay prepared

Claudia Cowan reports from Oroville

 

Authorities lifted an evacuation order Tuesday for nearly 200,000 California residents who live below the nation's tallest dam with a damaged spillway that threatened to collapse and cause catastrophic flooding.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said at a press conference that experts found no additional damage to "compromise the overall integrity" of the emergency spillway to the Oroville Dam, and that residents should stay prepared. 

Residents returning home should be prepared for "the prospect that we will issue another evacuation order," Honea said, adding that people may be forced to leave again "if the situation changes." 

Honea said the water level at the lake behind dam is low enough to handle additional rain from an expected storm this week.

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Bill Croyle, the acting director of the California Department of Water Resources, said the affected area of the emergency spillway has been "stable for four days." Crews also dropped giant sandbags, cement blocks and boulders on damaged areas Tuesday.

"We're aggressively attacking the erosion concerns that have been identified," Croyle said. 

The water agency is going to take "additional actions" to make sure to withdraw water directly from the reservoir to try to avoid using the emergency spillway. 

"Our goal is remove as much water as we can from the reservoir to not be able to use it," Croyle said, referring to the spillway. "If we have to use it, we want it to make sure it can take higher flows."

Officials had ordered residents to flee to higher ground Sunday after fearing a never-before-used emergency spillway was close to failing and sending a 30-foot wall of water into communities downstream.

Over the weekend, the swollen lake spilled down the unpaved emergency spillway for nearly 40 hours, leaving it badly eroded. The problem occurred six days after engineers discovered a growing hole in the dam's main, concrete spillway.

Officials defended the decision to suddenly call for mass evacuations Sunday, just a few hours after saying the situation was stable, forcing families to rush to pack up and get out.

"There was a lot of traffic. It was chaos," said Robert Brabant, an Oroville resident who evacuated with his wife, son, dogs and cats. "It was a lot of accidents. It was like people weren't paying attention to other people."

California Gov. Jerry Brown said the federal government has approved aid to support the rebuilding of the shore of the damaged dam and help the affected communities.

Brown said the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved two recent aid requests made by his office. Last week, Brown requested a presidential disaster declaration for California to reinforce recovery efforts following January storms that caused flooding, mudslides, power outages and damaged critical infrastructure across the state.

The governor thanked FEMA for moving quickly, saying "the federal aid will get money and resources where it's needed most."

Earlier Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said President Donald Trump is keeping a "close eye" on the public safety crisis caused by the Oroville Dam.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.