If you lived through it, you will never forget it. Especially if you had to evacuate during the Oroville Dam Spillway Crisis.
In that moment, all eyes were on Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, wondering what he would do next.
Honea said it didn't even feel real; he felt like he was in a science fiction movie having to make life and death decisions in a moment’s notice.
Sometimes we ask ourselves: “What would you do if...?” Luckily, for most people that's a rhetorical question.
But for some time, Sheriff Kory Honea carried what seemed like the weight of the world on his shoulders.
He's also a husband and a father, but, in his more than 2 decades of law enforcement, he never thought he'd be in the national spotlight.
“There was nothing more stressful and no decision more critical than the one I had to make last year on February 12th,” he said.
Making the decision to tell hundreds of thousands of people to grab their loved ones, and run for their lives.
“You know, you initially start out with ‘is this really happening? Am I really understanding what they're telling me here?”
He struggles to find the words explain the impact.
“The information I had was that things were alright. It wasn't ideal, but it was going fairly well.”
And then everything changed. There was, confusion, pressure, and fear. Fear that there may not be enough time.
“We were all trying to manage a situation that, frankly, there wasn't much of a playbook for,” he said.
Experts warned him of a catastrophic failure.
“I said, ‘did you just use the word catastrophic?’ And he said, ‘yeah.’ So I said, ‘okay, explain what that means.’”
They said hundreds of thousands of cubic feet per second of water could overflow on the emergency spillway, and that an about 30-foot-tall wall of water could take out everything in its path.
“I said, ‘well, that sounds like a lot of people could die,’ and the response was: ‘well, that's what we're afraid of,’” Honea recalled.
So he made the call to evacuate. His wife also works for the sheriff's office and was the supervising dispatcher on duty when he told the office it's all hands on deck.
“This lump kind of forms in my throat. I had just ordered thousands of people to evacuate because I was afraid they were going to die, and in the same breath, I ordered all of my staff into that same area. And the thought that came to my head was, you know, if I’m still here tomorrow, I might not have a department.”
He took a moment to call his daughter and left her a heartfelt voicemail.
“Letting her know that I loved her and I was really proud of her. I didn't know what was going to happen and I wasn't sure if we were going to make it out, so I wanted her to have something.”
The sleepless hours turned into days.
“There were nights afterward for several weeks where it was hard to sleep and I would wake up in the middle of the night.”
And then there's all the second guessing.
“If I hadn't been in better physical shape, I probably would have had a heart attack during this entire situation.”
Two years ago he started working out with a trainer, and has since lost 75 pounds. During this crisis, he would use whatever free time he could find to work out so he could release some stress and stay sane.
A couple of days after the evacuations, he remembers doing a wall sit.
“I started to fall asleep in that position, and it was kind of amazing that you could fall asleep like that but it just kind of demonstrated how exhausted I was at the time.”
The spillway crisis happened during Valentine’s Day, but even love has to take a back seat to a life and death emergency.
“I had forgotten. I didn’t do anything for Valentine’s Day. Fortunately, there were some bushes outside my office door that had some flowers on them, so I took my knife and cut flowers off this bush and I wrapped them in crime scene tape. I know it's pathetic, it's a pathetic attempt at trying to cover it up.”
This Valentine's Day, he got his wife a dozen roses, but still wrapped them in crime scene tape.
Now that Valentine’s Day is part of a memory, a moment in time that binds everyone who lived through it, with the Butte County Sheriff as the lead character of a movie none of us will ever forget.
Honea said everyone learned a lot from what happened, and though he never wants to be in that situation again, he said he wouldn't give up that experience because he's a better sheriff and better person because of it.
He also said the sheriff's office is now much better at managing big incidents, and that showed during the fire season.
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