In from the storm

People, pets find shelter at Silver Dollar Fairgrounds—and some remain despite signal to head home

Leon Woodson, Dorinda Hankins and their three children rushed to find emergency shelter in Chico from their home in Oroville.

Leon Woodson, Dorinda Hankins and their three children rushed to find emergency shelter in Chico from their home in Oroville.

Photos by Vic Cantu

Leon Woodson, Dorinda Hankins and the couple’s three children, all under 12, received the emergency notice via cellphone to flee Oroville within 30 minutes. A friend from out of the area was visiting, and the family struggled to fit all six people and some belongings in their car.

Woodson left with just the clothes on his back, his turmoil compounded by the fact that he’d undergone five surgeries recently for testicular cancer.

“I want to go back home. I’m going to go back,” he said in a weak voice Monday (Feb. 13) from the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds. “I got a lot of shit back home like my medications, food and clothes.”

All told, the mandatory evacuation order initially ordered for Oroville and surrounding regions by Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea and shortly thereafter extended into Sutter and Yuba counties disrupted the lives and homes of nearly 200,000 people.

The morning after the evacuation, more than 800 of them had checked into Chico’s fairgrounds, with room to spare for many more, said Matthew Marques, night supervisor from the Red Cross. Food, drinks, cots and many other items were on-hand, much of them donated. Marques said a medical booth had personnel taking care of anyone with medical or psychological needs.

The entire process went well, he said. Check-in went smoothly, with people signing in, then being assigned the essentials. Alcohol, weapons and drugs were prohibited.

“Obviously it’s a tragedy to uproot people, but we’re keeping them warm and dry, with staples to get them through,” Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien said. “As tough as this is, the alternative is much worse.”

Woodson lamented that the family wasn’t able to fit its two cats in the car, but other evacuees who brought along pets found accommodations for them on-site. That day, 130 pets and livestock were secured in pens and crates on the property. Those with service animals were allowed to keep them in the living quarters area.

A homeless woman named Kim left Riverbend Park in Oroville and camped outside the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds with her two dogs.

The animals were sheltered, fed and cared for by the North Valley Animal Disaster Group, a volunteer-led nonprofit made up of animal lovers. It’s the only disaster animal shelter group that works with the county of Butte, said Sandy Doolittle, the organization’s public information officer. The group set up a second shelter in Paradise for small animals.

Even more than providing a safe, caring environment for animals, the group’s volunteers also pick up those left behind by displaced owners. Doolittle estimated they had retrieved more than 100 animals during the recent evacuation.

“During a disaster, people can call us if they can’t evacuate their pets, and we transport them,” she said, “either with or without their owners.”

Elsewhere at the fairgrounds, many people declined to crate their dogs and instead camped out in the parking lot. One such owner was Kim, a middle-age homeless woman from Oroville who wouldn’t give her last name. She had been camped with her two small, mix-breed dogs at Riverbend Park on Sunday, when her son called to tell her to leave the area.

She “saw all the chaos of cars and cops,” grabbed some belongings—her dogs and a backpack, which she filled with dog food and water, leaving no room for her own food. A friend drove her to Chico’s fairgrounds.

It took 45 minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic to get from Oroville to Chico, she said.

Though Honea downgraded the evacuation to a warning on Tuesday afternoon (Feb. 14), allowing residents to return home, more than 300 people remained at the fairgrounds Wednesday morning, said Amanda Ree, executive director of the Red Cross for northeastern California.

For those who do return home, Ree stressed the importance of being prepared in the event of another emergency.

She said the emergency organization was continuing its efforts to care for evacuees at least through the next few days, as inclement weather headed back to the North State. Some residents had chosen to stay put because they have mobility issues that made it difficult to return home, and also to return in the event of another evacuation.

Others, she said, “are just scared, hesitant to go back to a situation where they don’t know what’s going to happen.”