Local crews assist evacuees in Lake Oroville area - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Local crews assist evacuees in Lake Oroville area

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SAN DIEGO (CBS 8/AP) - Sixteen volunteers from the American Red Cross of San Diego/Imperial Counties have been deployed to Northern California to assist with relief efforts due to damage to the spillway at the Oroville Dam. Two of the volunteers are driving one of our region's emergency response vehicles, a mobile feeding unit, to Sacramento.
 
Two Red Cross shelters were open last night housing 4,400 evacuees who were forced to leave their homes due to compromised Oroville Dam spillway. At least 188,000 people have been ordered to evacuate and officials report it could be up to two weeks before they can return home.
 
"We have four shelters open now where people can find a safe place to stay, get meals, health services and a shoulder to lean on," said Bill Earley, Regional CEO. "More workers and relief supplies are arriving soon - cots, blankets, personal hygiene items, kitchen supplies - enough to support thousands of people. Many of these folks left their homes with very little and we are working to make them comfortable. Conditions remain uncertain with weather predictions calling for snow, winds and more rain, and we are continuing to monitor the situation very closely."

Crews working around the clock atop the crippled Oroville Dam have made progress repairing the damaged spillway, reducing the lake level by at least 8 feet overnight at a Northern California reservoir that has been central to the life of the towns around it for a half century.

Workers hoisted giant white bags filled with rocks, and at least two helicopters planned to fly in rocks Tuesday then release them into the eroded area of the spillway. Dump trucks full of boulders also were dumping cargo on the damaged spillway.

Workers are rushing to repair the barrier at the nation's tallest dam after authorities ordered the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people for everyone living below the lake amid concerns the spillway could fail and send water roaring downstream. Evacuations were lifted on Tuesday afternoon. 

RELATED: Evacuation order lifted for nearly 200,000 Californians

State Department of Water Resources officials hope to reduce the lake level to 860 feet by Thursday when storms will bring more rain, spokesman Chris Orrock said. The level was 884 feet on Tuesday morning.

The lake that for five decades has brought residents holiday fireworks and salmon festivals now could bring disaster.

"Never in our lives did we think anything like this would have happened," said Brannan Ramirez, who has lived in Oroville, a town of about 16,000 people, for about five years.

The Gold Rush town in the Sierra Nevada foothills some 70 miles northeast of Sacramento is nestled near the foot of the dam, which was completed in 1968 and at 770 feet is the nation's tallest. Houses and churches are perched on tree-lined streets near the Feather River. Old, ornate Victorian homes sit alongside smaller bungalows.

"Everybody knows to go there for the Fourth of July," evacuee Crystal Roberts-Lynch said of the lake. "Then there's festivals wrapped around the salmon run." The mother of three, who has lived in Oroville for 10 years, was staying at a Red Cross evacuation center in Chico

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.

"The lake brings in an enormous part of the economy for the town. It definitely is a people-catcher," said Brannan Ramirez, who has lived in Oroville for about five years. "We get people from all over the country."

Cities and towns farther 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.

For now, it's all at the mercy of the reservoir that usually sustains it, and provides water for much of the state.

"If anything, we would have thought that the dam would have been constructed better," Ramirez said.

Ramirez said it was "extremely frustrating" when he heard reports that emerged Monday of complaints about the potential danger that came from environmentalists and government officials a dozen years ago.

Those warnings described the very scenario that was threatening to unfold, though they were dismissed state and federal regulators who expressed confidence that the dam and its spillways could withstand serious storms.

The acting head of the state's Department of Water Resources said he was unaware of the 2005 report that recommended reinforcing with concrete an earthen spillway that is now eroding.

"I'm not sure anything went wrong," Bill Croyle said. "This was a new, never-having-happened-before event."

Roberts-Lynch didn't buy the explanations.

"I know that somebody did not pay attention to the warning signs," she said. "Someone in charge was not paying attention. It was their job to pay attention to what was going on with the dam."

Over the weekend, the swollen lake spilled down the unpaved, emergency spillway, which had never been used before, for nearly 40 hours, leaving it badly eroded.

Officials defended the decision to suddenly call for mass evacuations late Sunday afternoon, 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."

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 Donald 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.

But evacuee Kelly Remocal said she believed the public officials working on the problem are "downplaying everything so people don't freak out."

"I honestly don't think they're going to be able to do it, fix the problem," she said. "This requires a little more than a Band-Aid. At this point they have no choice but to give it a Band-Aid fix."

The Red Cross is also working with partners to provide an array of services, including pet care and in-kind donations from the community. 

Services are available for people with access and functional needs. There are 130 Red Cross workers on the ground currently, with more on the way in the coming days. Ten Red Cross emergency response vehicles are on the scene supporting feeding operations. The Red Cross and its partners provided 3,600 meals on Monday, and later this week will be prepared to feed as many as 15,000 people a day.

MAKE A DONATION Help people affected by disasters like floods and countless other crises by donating to Red Cross Disaster Relief. Your gift enables the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disasters big and small across the United States. Visit redcross.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS or text the word CAFLOODS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

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Associated Press writers Kristin J. Bender and Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco, Ellen Knickmeyer in Sonoma and Justin Pritchard, Brian Melley and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles also contributed to this report.

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