Whole Dog Journal's Blog February 15, 2017

Oroville Dam Casestudy: How Evacuating People And Animals Early and Often Can Save Lives

Posted at 04:57PM - Comments: (24)

In the winter of 1997, the town where I live now, Oroville, California, had a big flood. I didn’t live here then. But that year, the Feather River, which (usually) flows tamely right through my town, was threatening to massively flood the town. There is a dirt levee that separates the river from the main streets, and it seems like an historic artifact most of the time – a thing that was built by pioneers to try to keep the Feather from flooding the town again and again. It seems quaint now, because since 1968, the town has been more significantly protected by the Oroville Dam, with a huge reservoir (Lake Oroville) behind it – the combination that meters out the Feather at a safe and sane rate, protecting the town and much of the Sacramento Valley below from flooding. But with truly historic rainfall, like in 1997, the operators of the dam can’t help but let out so much water that the river swells to capacity, and suddenly our old historic levee is important once again, holding back the Feather from flooding Oroville.

In 1997, with the Oroville Dam letting out maximum quantities of water, and the Feather crazily high, the levee started seeping. County officials called for an immediate evacuation of Oroville. If the levee burst, they said, the town would be covered with 12 feet of water.

The local animal shelter lies about a mile and a half from the river, in the prehistoric flood plain of the Feather. Wild-eyed police officers gave the then-director of the shelter 15 minutes to get her staff and herself out of the shelter. Faced with the prospect of every animal in the shelter drowning, and with no way to evacuate 60-some animals that quickly, she made the horrible decision to euthanize every animal. Every staff member was pressed into helping. The animals were left dead in their enclosures, the doors locked, and the staff fled.

But the levee held, and the town didn’t flood.

It was a horrible, traumatic day for everyone involved. And the horror was burned into the memory of at least one of the kennel workers, who still has nightmares about it. Today, she’s the director of the same shelter, now located in a newer facility about 300 yards from the old one. On any given day today, the shelter holds about three times as many animals as before. 

This last week, as you may have heard, the town of Oroville was evacuated again. Northern California, on the heels of a long drought, is being inundated with rain. The mighty Feather is again roaring, and the Oroville Dam holding it back. But the structure recently suffered catastrophic damage. A huge hole suddenly developed in the main spillway, where floodwaters can be dumped out of the lake when inflow exceeds outflow. Even with the lake filling fast, the dam operators had to shut off the outflow, to ascertain the extent of the damage. The lake neared the brim, the point at which the water of Lake Oroville would start to flow over the top of them never-once-used “emergency spillway” – basically, the engineered lowest spot on the downstream edge of the lake, positioned at what seemed like a safe distance from the dam itself.

Photo by and courtesy of Gonzalo "Peewee" Curiel, a local pilot who has taken and posted the best photos the community has seen. To the right is the Oroville Dam, 770 feet tall. Behind it, Lake Oroville. Center, the main spillway, damaged from the center and below. To the left, the "emergency spillway," with water coming over the top for the first time since the dam was built. All the erosion seen below threatened to undermine that structure, which could have unleashed a wall of water.

The current director of the shelter, who can still tear up and start trembling at the thought of that horrible day 20 years ago, wasn’t going to sit still and wait for the police to give the staff 15 minutes or even 15 hours to evacuate. With the lake nearing full, and given the damage to the spillway, she pulled the trigger on a precautionary evacuation, days before any other county official thought it was necessary.

On Friday, February 10, as water started pouring over the “emergency spillway” on the dam, the director started reaching out to every animal rescue group the shelter has ever done business with, and asked if they could come take some animals. Hound rescue, Lab rescue, small dog rescue…you name it, they were called. She announced a “Dam Good Adoption Event” – every adoptable animal could be adopted for free. And she called on all people who foster animals, if they lived outside the evacuation zone, to come and take some animals.

I live three blocks from the levee, definitely in the zone. But I helped get dogs to friends’ homes. One friend took two dogs; another took six puppies, from several different litters. All the cat cages were loaded up into trailers, and taken to the homes of shelter employees who A) lived in a safe zone and B) had a warm barn or garage where they could care for the cats safely. (Fortunately, all of the cat cages are mobile, and can be rolled about in banks of nine enclosures, making it super easy to move the cats with bowls and litter pans in place.)

Another friend hitched up her horse trailer, and late Friday evening, transported 10 large dogs to my friend Sarah Richardson, who owns and operates The Canine Connection, a training, daycare, and boarding facility. After we got those 10 situated, Sarah asked how many dogs were left, and offered to take more. We took a second trip with six more, and the woman who was driving the shelter took six more home.

The shelter adopted over 30 animals that day and gave a "get out of jail free" card to owners who had not been able to pay fines or fees, so their animals could go home ASAP.

On Saturday, with only a handful of dogs in the shelter (the ones that the county animal control officers had picked up as stray in the past couple of days, and that the shelter did not have authority to move), the director directed the staff to start a deep cleaning of the shelter. May as well stay busy. In the meantime, up at the dam, workers were growing concerned about severe erosion being caused on the face of the hill next to the dam from all the water pouring over the emergency spillway.

On Sunday afternoon, the shelter was closed, with just a small number of dogs that county animal control would not let us move, when emergency order to evacuate immediately was broadcast. The order said there were indications that erosion on the hill might undercut the emergency spillway and cause the lake to flow in an entirely uncontrolled fashion over the hill next to the dam, essentially carving a new river channel next to the dam. The dam operators estimated that the thing was going to collapse within an hour. And if it did, a 30-foot wall of water would be right behind it, leveling my town.

When the emergency evacuation order was broadcast, on radio, TV, and cell phones, I was helping my friend Sarah with the 15 evacuated shelter dogs in the next town over, completely safe. I had my dog Woody with me, as he gets into less mischief hanging out with me than staying at home with my husband for long chunks of time. I had a gym bag and some spare clothes in the car.

My husband, our dog Otto, and my son’s dog Cole (who is staying with us while my son is on a trip to New Zealand!), were at home, right in the path of danger. My husband’s stated goal for the day was to mow the weeds (all that’s left of our lawns after several years of drought) and trim some trees. So he was outdoors, running loud equipment, and with his cell phone in the house. I called and texted him numerous times, getting more and more panicky by the second. I called and texted every friend I knew who was also in the danger zone; they were all packing and driving away.

I had started driving toward my town, scared stiff that at any second I was going to hear on the radio that the lake was headed to town, shaking and crying, and begging my husband to call. The traffic on the other side of the highway, headed out of town, was getting thicker and thicker. I didn’t want to drive into a wall of water, but I had to get my husband and dogs.

Thank goodness, my neighbor over my back fence heard my husband in our yard and yelled at him when the mower shut off. “THERE’S AN EVACUATION!” she told him. That’s when he finally picked up his cell phone and saw that I had sent him a half dozen texts and voice mail messages to “PLEASE GET THE DOGS AND GET OUT!” He grabbed a few things, and was tying the dogs in the back of his truck, even as police drove by twice, each time yelling over the megaphone at him to “LEAVE NOW!” Only when he was in the truck and driving out of town did he call me to say he was on his way out. When the call came, I was right at the last possible exit where I could turn around and also head back in the direction of safety. I waited there for him, and we shifted the dogs from the back of his truck into my car, and then we joined the traffic back to a nearby safe town.

The police wouldn’t allow the director of the shelter to go to the building and evacuate those last 15 or so dogs.

That night, we all watched the news, held our breath, and said prayers.

The next morning (Monday), the chief of police, likely feeling a little bad for pooh-poohing the shelter director days earlier, kept vigil while she oversaw the evacuation of the last few dogs from the shelter. At last ALL the animals, some 200 dogs, cats, birds, and a pig or two, were safe.

On Monday and Tuesday, the weather was sunny and warm and beautiful. My husband and I (and the three dogs) stayed with a friend in a nearby town. I had no computer, just my phone. I spent most of my time at my friend Sarah’s place, trying to help care for the evacuated dogs – and with Sarah promoting them on her Facebook page, adopting six of them out!!

Conditions at the dam improved, and midday on Tuesday, the Sherriff downgraded our evacuation to an “evacuation warning” – meaning, we could go home, but we should keep our cars packed, radios on (and mowers off, maybe!), be ready to evacuate again. The shelter director is keeping all the evacuated animals in foster care. Until the Sherriff moves the prisoners that he’s in charge of back into the county jail, also in the evacuation zone, we’re not moving animals back into our shelter, either.

As I write this, it’s Wednesday morning, and a storm is moving in. If the lake water rises rapidly again, and conditions deteriorate, another evacuation will be called. This time I will be more ready, with my computer and all my dogs with me, and my husband with his phone taped to his body, I think. But no matter what happens, the shelter animals will be safe, thanks to the efforts of many local animal lovers AND, most significantly, to the hyper-vigilance and experience of my local shelter director, Lorraine “Rainy” Green. That’s really her name! She avoids the spotlight like the plague, but I hope she will take a bow when this is all over.


Comments (24)

First of all, Rainy was just an employee following orders when the massive euthanization took place. I don't agree with the decision that was made but under stress with 15 minutes to get out, the director made the call. It is easy to sit back and give advice or criticism, but short of just turning the animals loose, she did what she thought was best. I think that I would have opened the gate and let them run free. Round them up later and suffer the consequences. Rainy, you are my hero for getting a game plan together and saving the animals. Some hard lessons are learned through other peoples mistakes. My hat is off to you kiddo.

Posted by: B. Back | February 17, 2017 2:54 PM    Report this comment

Thank you Rainy and Nancy for all you do for the animals. Rainy, my heart breaks for youm having to make that decision, and we are all thankful that you continue with your work.!! Nancy, great article, I was in tears...so happy you are all safe. Prayers that that will continue!

Posted by: Boss | February 17, 2017 10:33 AM    Report this comment

God Bless you Rainy Green, and the staff that was with you that day. May you find peace knowing you made the right choice, the only choice given the circumstances and the options.

lferrigno, you absolutely can not judge, you have no concept of the choices the shelter staff had to make, nor the time frame. Who would even abandon their family to come to the shelter to help move animals when the town was given 15 minutes to evacuate? Had you even considered the logistics of moving those animals with the number of staff and vehicles available in that 15 minutes? Would you have left the animals there to a death by drowning in what was an imminent flood coming? Judge not, lest ye be judged ..

Posted by: 3grrrs | February 17, 2017 8:07 AM    Report this comment

Thank you, Rainy Green! You were just added to my American heroes list.

Posted by: naturegirlrjg | February 16, 2017 8:30 PM    Report this comment

I had to evacuate with my dog during "Sandy"...and will never forget the stress! Thank you for being there for the animals...you are unbelievably generous to those innocent creatures, who love you even if they can't tell you so!!!

Posted by: JakeR | February 16, 2017 5:47 PM    Report this comment

What a sad and yet heartening article. No one can be expected to invariably make the right call in a dire situation. The best we can expect is that those in charge learn from a disaster so that it doesn't repeat. How fortunate that the shelter director had the brains and courage to remain on the job after the devastating previous event so that she could ensure it doesn't repeat. This is such a great example of a community effort to do the right thing.
Also, Nancy, you are a brace and decent woman and I'm very happy to be a part of the Whole Dog Community.
Thank you for the work you do.

Posted by: jd-s | February 16, 2017 2:23 PM    Report this comment

Thank you for posting this hair raising account of taking positive action. Your excellent writing skills had me on the edge of my seat as you tell of trying to reach your husband! Now, how can we help the shelter from this point onward? I'm in Texas so it's impractical for me to be able to adopt any animals, but if you'll post an address I would like to make a donation and I'm sure others would like to help in some way also.

Posted by: V_Den-270 | February 16, 2017 1:17 PM    Report this comment

Donations are always gladly accepted by the shelter. Go to nwspca.org and click the "Donate" button on the left side. -- Nancy Kerns, Editor

Posted by: WDJ Editor Nancy Kerns | February 16, 2017 12:57 PM    Report this comment

to all the animal lovers who applaud the work of the staff in protecting their charges, I agree with you that the efforts by these shelter workers and those who are helping them are exceptional and deserve praise, not condemnation for something they were unable to control many years ago.
AND to Iferrigno: it must be nice to be perfect. Because you have the right to make your comments doesn't make them either appropriate in this context or helpful. I'm sorry to say you have probably caused further emotional trauma to those who lived through the horrible situation so long ago. That is unless they are able to just "consider the source" and move on; I truly hope that's the case. And, since you feel so strongly about what happened, I strongly suggest you make sure it can't ever happen to another animal either through financial means or even more important by volunteering your time.

Posted by: hoycehoopes | February 16, 2017 12:37 PM    Report this comment

Good for your shelter director! If you post an address (or addresses), I bet a lot of people would be glad to chip in to help defray the cost of all this.

(And animal control be d.....d, move ALL the animals out of harm's way)

Posted by: pl | February 16, 2017 12:33 PM    Report this comment

Our local Petco store, along with all who live in our area, were given 3 days' advance warning of possible flooding. When it was x to evacuate, the store mgr refused to let the employees take home the animals and reptiles, etc., overnight. All of those critters perished in the flood! He kept saying that the flood waters would not reach his store. What ONE human can do to save lives or not is exemplified in each of these stories. God bless Rainy Green!

Posted by: Pakayakers | February 16, 2017 12:22 PM    Report this comment

Amazing and wonderful!! Many, many thanks to all those involved. And please let us know if/how donations can be made! And a thanks to all those working on the dam/spillway!!

Posted by: Narrowdog | February 16, 2017 12:19 PM    Report this comment

Iferrigno: you are showing a terrible lack of consideration for the people of this shelter. In 1997, they were given ONLY 15 minutes to evacuate. They had two choices ONLY: to leave the animals to be terrified while the water rose, and then die a very unpleasant and TERRIFYING death by drowning, or, to quickly euthanize because they cared enough that the animals not suffer. They had NO choice. They would never have been able to get them all out and in safer places. Drowning is horrible way to die. Is THAT the option you would choose? Show some compassion! They hated having to do it. They are very fortunate they were able to find safe places for the animals on this occasion. Time was on their side. It was NOT in 1997.

Posted by: Tamara Heikalo | February 16, 2017 12:14 PM    Report this comment

Rainy Green you are an "angel"!!
All animal lovers thank you and admire your dedication.
Rosie's Mom

Posted by: Rainy Green you are an angel. All animal lovers thank you!!! | February 16, 2017 11:52 AM    Report this comment

My heartfelt praise to the current director of the shelter and to her courage to move forward, while carrying that heavy heartache from 20 years ago💝 Please remember you did it out of love for those animals in an effort to prevent them from suffering a terrible death by drowning.
Wonderful article, Nancy! And I feel it serves as a beautiful memorial to the 60 animals who gave their lives in 1997 to become our teachers in 2017🐾 👼🐾

Posted by: Surfdoggies | February 16, 2017 11:21 AM    Report this comment

A dramatic story, vividly told. I applaud "Rainy" Green for her heroic and successful efforts to protect all of those animals. However, I can't dispute the judgment voiced by Iferrigno regarding the horrific events of 1997, as well as the question that must be addressed to anyone in a position of authority: would you abandon or, more to the point, kill your family in similar circumstances? Would the sheriff have lined up the prisoners in his charge and executed them rather than save them by any means necessary. The point is, when you lock someone up, human or animal, for any reason, you assume responsibility for what happens to them - no excuses!

Posted by: Alvin Hill | February 16, 2017 11:08 AM    Report this comment

To Iferringo: you are being unbelievably unfair. That shelter was given only 15 minutes to clear out. What choice would YOU have made? Either leave all the animals to drown, or euthanize them? Drowning is a HORRID way to die. If they had done that, fine, they would then have deserved to be chastised. They had NO CHOICE. They remain deeply upset by it. THINK before you criticize!

Posted by: Tamara Heikalo | February 16, 2017 11:02 AM    Report this comment

Nancy, the minute I heard about the Oroville Dam I thought of you and have been hoping for the best for you, your family, and your town. We met some years ago at a pet food industry conference, during the melamine tragedy. So glad to hear you're all okay. This story is such an important reminder to all to always be prepared and at the ready to help those in need - the elderly, the infirm, and the voiceless non human animals we all love. Kudos and thank you.

Posted by: Carole K | February 16, 2017 10:42 AM    Report this comment

You all are wonderful for being prepared and moving all to safety. When Katrina hit years ago, I was horrified that people left their pets in houses to drown or starve to death. Its horrible to lose your home, but to go above and beyond and think of helping those who can't help themselves, is a heroic and kind thing. Thank you to all those responsible for helping the shelter!

Posted by: Marcia S | February 16, 2017 10:37 AM    Report this comment

You are all angels!! I admire you for all the love and compassion and hard work you did in this emergency, and every day! Here's hoping this next storm is much smaller than these recent ones (I live downstream and if something catastrophic happens there, it will surely reach us here as well...)

Posted by: Jack's mom | February 16, 2017 10:17 AM    Report this comment

All I have to say is WOULD YOU HAVE LEFT BEHIND YOUR KIDS OR BETTER STILL EUTHANIZED THEM. Those people (20) Years Ago should have been arrested and charged for their actions. You have a responsibility to go above and beyond. They were suppose to protect our 4 legged friends. Those people should have nightmares for what they did. They deserve them to have nightmares. I hope that haunts them the rest of their lives.

Posted by: lferrigno | February 16, 2017 10:06 AM    Report this comment

Is there any way we can help by way of donations, towels, bedding etc?

Posted by: harbormaster | February 16, 2017 10:04 AM    Report this comment

Wow - thanks so much for the detailed update! Knowing that you live in the Oroville area and keeping tabs on the problems with the dam in the flooding of the Feather River (I live in the Reno area), I was worried about you and the shelter you love so much. Kudos to shelter director "Rainy" and her quick thinking as well as plans developed over the years. The Nevada Humane Society had a similar free adoption event earlier this year when minor flooding threatened their facility. It was amazing to see all the volunteers and adopters at the shelter, making sure each dog (even seniors), cat, and small animal had a chance at adoption. They pretty much cleared out the shelter: I didn't even have a chance to foster! Folks really pulled together. I'm so glad to hear that it was the same in Oroville. Now, we'll see what happens as new storms threaten, but, hopefully, the spillways and dam will hold.

Posted by: Robin Chaffey | February 16, 2017 10:04 AM    Report this comment

Thanks to you all.

Posted by: jgraglan | February 16, 2017 9:20 AM    Report this comment

New to Whole Dog Journal? Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In