Butte County Sheriff reflects on days, hours before the Oroville Dam evacuation
OROVILLE, Calif. —
Monday marks a year since one of the largest evacuations in state history happened in the Northstate. Nearly 200,000 people were ordered to leave for fear that a 30-foot wall of water would soon come crashing out of Oroville Dam.
It was a night anyone living in Butte County remembers vividly, but for Sheriff Honea, it's the night he was so afraid for the lives of the people in his charge, he ordered them to leave.
"I immediately came to the realization that I had just ordered the evacuation of thousands of people out of an area because I was literally afraid that they were gonna die," explained Sheriff Kory Honea.
This was the tipping point, the February 12 moment Sheriff Honea made the call that would send hundreds of thousands of people scrambling for the nearest freeway. But how did it get there? The Sheriff said it started on February 7, the day the hole formed.
"One of my staff members said, "Sheriff I think you should see this," Honea explained.
It was a picture on Facebook that alerted him there was a huge hole in the Oroville Dam spillway.
"I'm certainly no expert in dams or how they operate, but I could tell there was a problem," Honea explained.
He knew he needed to get involved, but when he did, he quickly realized they all had a plan if the dam failed, but not one for the spillway.
"A failure of one of the spillways wasn't something that I think had been contemplated and it certainly wasn't something that we had talked about," Honea said.
For the sheriff, the next five days were stressful, up and down as the DWR struggled to manage water in the very full reservoir with a badly damage flood control system. The stress started to peak on February 11 when water started pouring over the emergency spillway for the first time in history.
"We all watched very closely and were obviously quite concerned," said Honea. "As we moved into February 12, it was an interesting day, if you'll remember, it was sunny, it was a Sunday, the rain had stopped."
At first, Honea said all seemed well. The emergency spillway seemed to be doing its job, but as he made his rounds in the command center, he noticed a group of engineers all looking down.
"As I approached, I heard [one] say this isn't good, I don't like this," said Honea
They showed Honea what they were worried about. It was a new massive erosion in the emergency spillway that could result in a catastrophic failure. One that would end with a 30-foot wall of water crashing out of the reservoir.
"And I actually, I said, 'did you just use the word catastrophic?' Because that obviously resonated with me, and he said yeah," Honea recalled. "And I said, 'if that happens it sounds to me like thousands of people could die or be in harm's way' and the response back was 'well, that's what we're concerned about.'"
At this point, the group of engineers, hydrologists, officials, all agreed, he needed to make the call to evacuate nearly 200,000 people.
"I said in a pretty loud voice, everybody stop talking and listen," Honea explained. "If there's anybody in here who's got a better idea, or you think that we're about to do something that, make the wrong decision, I need you to tell me now. And the room was quiet, nobody said a word."
In the end, the spillway didn't collapse, and no one was seriously injured, but in the year since it happened Sheriff Honea has had a lot of time to reflect. He said he's most proud of his staff, all of which came running in, as he ordered the rest of Oroville out.
"In the end, the credit for pulling it off goes to my staff, it goes to public safety professionals who came and helped and it goes to the members of this community who rose to the occasion," Sheriff Honea said. "I don't ever want to do this again but we learned a lot from the experience and I'm glad we're on this side of it."
He said he's grateful to the understanding community for the tough decision he had to make. One of the biggest lessons he's learned? The importance of being prepared at all times.