Extraordinarily lucky

A year after the Oroville Dam disaster, let’s be better prepared

A year ago Monday (Feb. 12), more than 180,000 people were ordered to leave their homes due to the threat of a massive flood after major flaws were found in the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway, used for the first time since it had been built half a century before.

The spillway didn’t fail, thankfully, and people and their pets, displaced and distressed for days, were allowed to return home in time for Valentine’s Day. But what if it had? We know now how inadequate the safety inspections and regular maintenance of the dam were. There were photographs and mentions of problems in the main spillway decades ago. They were noted so often, in fact, that they were eventually considered normal.

So, what if the emergency spillway had failed? According to documents available a year ago, it was anybody’s guess. That’s because emergency plans had only considered the failure of the dam itself—not its spillways. But now we can envision it. The Sacramento Bee, in fact, did just that in honor of the anniversary. The map and timeline of events, organized by FloodRise, a research project led by UC Irvine, are eerie to say the least. Here are a few highlights:

6:12 p.m.: Water spills into [Oroville], running fast enough to rip wood-framed houses from their foundations.

6:42 p.m.: The city’s bridges over the river are impassible. Parts of highways 70 and 162 are covered in water—much of it deep enough to cover cars entirely.” (What the timeline doesn’t explicitly say is that thousands of Orovillians who were stuck on these highways or on nearby roads trying to evacuate likely would have perished trying.)

11:42 p.m.: The water is 3 feet deep or more near Biggs High School—and still flowing fast enough to knock a person over in that part of the city.

We know a lot more now than we did then. And one thing is for sure: We were extraordinarily lucky. Let’s heed this massive warning we’ve been given and ensure we’re better prepared in the future. Legislation like the recently passed Assembly Bill 1270 (see Downstrokes, page 8), which mandates more stringent safety protocols, is a step in the right direction.