Not a drill

Specter of flooding hits the North State, threatens lives and progress in Oroville

My cellphone started blowing up Sunday afternoon. At 3:42 p.m., the first text rolled in from a friend of mine who lives in Los Angeles but owns a building in downtown Oroville: “What’s the scoop with the Oroville Dam?” he asked.

I double-checked before responding with what I knew—that low-lying downtown Oroville would be hit hard if the dam’s emergency spillway were to fail but that the authorities were saying all was well. I was working on a project in my kitchen at the time. I got back to it, but checked in on things every 10 minutes or so. Shortly thereafter, a mandatory evacuation for those regions popped up on the Butte County Sheriff’s Facebook page.

The message ended with this twice-repeated warning: “This is NOT A Drill.” Actually, it read “This in NOT A Drill.” Obviously, Sheriff Kory Honea and company were moving fast to get the message out amid news that erosion could lead to a breach of that structure—an earthen hillside with a concrete top where it meets the lake.

I let my friend know what I’d read. Then I took to CN&R’s Facebook page to warn readers. Minutes later, my best friend, a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, called to see if she could crash at my house. She was on her way to Chico from the suburbs of Sacramento to work on a story.

“Which way should I go?” she asked.

“Don’t go up Highway 70,” I responded.

At that point, she was already headed north on Highway 65. As news trickled in that Gridley could be affected, I directed her to Colusa via Highways 99 and 20. On that route, she could hit Highway 45 and come into Chico on Highway 32. She was far enough into the drive that, by the time the evacuations of Yuba City and Marysville were announced, she was ahead of the curve. Others endured gridlock.

I kept hunting for news from emergency personnel, and at one point it sounded as though failure of the emergency spillway was imminent. As one official from Cal Fire later put it, the outcome would have resulted in the release of a “30-foot wall of water.”

I thought of all of the people who were probably terrified, especially those closest to the dam. Poor Oroville, I thought. The town gets a bad rap, and it certainly has its share of rough customers and crime, but there are a lot of good folks doing things to turn that image around. From organizations helping indigent people to business people trying to revitalize the area and provide jobs for residents.

In fact, CN&R has seen big changes in Oroville over the last five years, especially downtown, which is why we’d chosen to feature it in our annual Business Issue well before the dam’s emergency spillway was a threat to that progress and, more important, to the lives of the tens of thousands of North State residents. In these pages, you’ll read about the historic region’s revitalization.

We’ve also extended our Newslines section this week so that we could focus our attention on the crisis in Oroville. Of course, the specter of flooding isn’t over quite yet. We’ll be following the situation in the weeks to come.