Hundreds of thousands in northern California could be displaced for weeks as emergency crews work Tuesday to stabilize an eroded section of spillway of the United States' largest dam to prevent a catastrophic flood in the area.
There was very little authorities could tell the public, Bill Croyle, the state acting director of water resources, said.
“I’m not sure anything went wrong,” he said. “That system has been installed since the early 1960s. It’s been monitored, but I’m not sure what caused the damage itself. It’s designed for higher flows. Lower flows can create more energy. We don’t completely understand why this erosion occurred.”
It could be at least 15 days before the agency is even able to put together a plan to make repairs, he said. In total, about 200,000 may be displaced.
Authorities fear the damaged spillway at Lake Oroville, which is about 80 miles north of Sacramento, could fail devastate the surrounding area.
"Never in our lives did we think anything like this would have happened," said Brannan Ramirez, who lives in Oroville, a town of about 16,000.
The dam, which stands at 770 feet at its highest point, is the nation's tallest.
Local businesses, including one that sells supplies for gold-panning, dominate a downtown area that spans several blocks. A wide range of chain stores sit a short distance away along the main highway.
Cities and towns further down the Feather River also are in danger.
Yuba City, population 65,000, is the biggest city evacuated. The city has the largest dried-fruit processing plant in the world and one of the largest populations of Sikhs outside of India.
The region is largely rural and its politics dominated by rice growers and other agricultural interests, including orchard operators. The region is dogged by the high unemployment rates endemic to farming communities. There are large pockets of poverty and swaths of sparsely populated forests, popular with anglers, campers and backpackers.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing around 150,000 bottles of water, 20,000 blankets and 10,000 cots to help out the residents affected by the evacuation, USA Today reported.
Gov. Jerry Brown said Monday that he sent a letter to the White House requesting direct federal assistance in the emergency, though some federal agencies have been helping already.
Brown has had harsh words for President Trump, and the state has vowed to resist many of his administration's efforts.
But the governor said at a news conference that he's "sure that California and Washington will work in a constructive way. That's my attitude. There will be different points of view, but we're all one America."
The governor said he doesn't plan to go to Oroville and distract from efforts, but he tried to reassure evacuees.
"My message is that we're doing everything we can to get this dam in shape and they can return and they can live safely without fear," Brown said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.