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Voices of Oroville: One year after Oroville Dam Spillway Crisis

Residents that were forced from their homes following the failure of the Oroville Dam Spillway one year ago take a look back at the impact is still has today.

Posted: Feb. 13, 2018 7:36 PM
Updated: Feb. 14, 2018 12:16 AM

Who could imagine they would have just one hour to evacuate their home? That's exactly what happened to nearly 200,000 people forced from their homes following the failure of the Oroville Dam Spillway on that Sunday afternoon on February 12th, 2017.

Some residents were completely caught off guard when the mandatory evacuation notice went out, others were prepared.

Margaret Johnston moved to Oroville when she was in the second grade. She remembers her father working on the Dam when it was being built. She's lived in the same home off Safford Street with her family since 1973. As she sits on her porch, she describes it as her sacred place. "This is my little temple here sometime, you know you can just sit here and pray and talk to God," Johnston said.  Only a levy and street separate her front steps from the Feather River.

Johnston recalls what happened when a mandatory evacuation notice went out. She was reluctant to go at first until two policemen knocked on her door and told her she needs to leave. Johnston said she's usually the head of her household and says it was hard losing control. "It was just like, all of a sudden I was just like everybody else. I didn't have any power, didn't have any control over my own house."

Johnston stayed at The Neighnorhood Church in Chico. "Being evacuated, going somewhere with a lot of people that you don't know. It was just really scary. At this point of my life, I've never had to do that in such a big way."

A few blocks down you'll find George Barber pouring a tasting for his customers at Purple Line Urban Winery. For 25 years George and his wife Kate have lived downtown. George said the winery was open when everyone received the evacuation notice.  George said it happened so quickly that people ran out without paying their bill, "people were terrified. Everybody's phone lit up and it was like- mass exodus."

Unlike the majority of residents, George and his wife were already prepared to go. They recalled the evacuation of Oroville in 1997 and saw what was coming this time around.  "It was clear water would come over the auxiliary spillway. And it had never been used before, and if it was a threat in 97 to evacuate the city I knew it was going to come we would be evacuated."

Today George says it's uncertain if they'll stay in downtown. His wife especially is uneasy, "we've been preparing to put our house on the market as far as getting things ready because she's not happy living under the dam."

Just like the Barber's preparedness, staff at the Northwest SPCA started preparing the moment the spillway cracked. Shelter manager Isha Buis has worked at the shelter since 1994. She said their director remembered the 1997 incident and knew they had to come up with a plan. Buis said first thing they did was take a count of the shelter, "We went ok, how and where can we move almost 200 animals?" Two days before the mandatory evacuation, staff at the shelter held a free adoption sale. They were able to place around 30 animals into forever homes. Buis said two staff members that lived in the safe zone housed all of the cats in their garage. Dogs were dispersed into other peoples homes and shelters in Chico.

If they had not cleared the shelter, Buis says the Sheriff would not have allowed them to return to the shelter until it was safe to do so. "If we had not done what we had done, proactively you know the two days prior to that, that would've been completely devastating."

Furter up closer to the dam, Oroville resident Melissa Parrish lived off of Morningstar Avenue when she was evacuated. She had just walked in through her front doors and quickly left with her husband, cat and only the clothes on her back. She describes a surreal atmosphere, "there was just cars, running stoplights, trucks on sidewalks, people were running and screaming. It was like an Armageddon movie it was unbelievable." 

For two days Parrish stayed at the evacuation center in Bangor. If the Spillway did fail, she was ready to start over. "You don't have a choice, you can't go back and drown. You can't just go save your stuff. You just have to be thankful you have your health and your wits and go," Parrish said.  

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