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


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, that former kennel worker is the director of the same shelter, now located in a newer facility about 300 yards from the old one. And today, on any given day, 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 is 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.

A photo of the emergency in progress. On the right is the bulk of the Oroville Dam, an earth-filled structure and one of the tallest dams in the U.S. The damaged spillway is seen in the center, with a cloud of mist rising from the spot where the spillway has been torn apart; the water is now flowing out of control outside the spillway. On the left side, though, is the newer, more potentially disastrous problem: With water coming into the lake faster than it can be released, the water is flowing over the “emergency spillway,” a never-before-used structure that proved to be dangerously insufficient. The water spilling over that area started undermining the gates at the top of the main spillway. If those gates are lost, the whole lake will soon be tearing that whole structure apart — and the city of Oroville and many other downstream towns will be likely swept away by the resulting flood.

The current director of the shelter, who still tears up and starts 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 official in the county 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 potentially flooded 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 kennels are mobile, and can be rolled about in sets of nine cages, 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 in crates 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 to her home.

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. And then came a mandatory order to evacuate the town of Oroville – immediately. The order said there were indications that erosion on the hill below the emergency spillway was undercutting the gates that control the flow of water over the main spillway. If the gates failed, the lake would begin 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 could 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, but 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 Sheriff 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 Sheriff 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 I’ll duct-tape my husband’s cell phone to his 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.