| Ellen Knickmeyer & Michael R Blood |
OROVILLE, California (AP) – Late in the afternoon of February 12, Sheriff Kory Honea was at the emergency operations centre for the tallest dam in America when he overheard someone say something that stopped him in his tracks: “This is not good.”
Over six straight days, the operators of the Oroville Dam had said there was no immediate danger after water surging down the main spillway gouged a hole the size of a football field in the concrete chute. But now suddenly they realised that the dam’s emergency backup spillway – essentially an unpaved hillside – was falling apart, too, and could unleash a deadly torrent of water.
Honea reacted by ordering the immediate evacuation of nearly 200,000 people downstream.
In the end, after frantic action by the dam’s keepers, catastrophe was averted. But an Associated Press examination of state and federal documents, emails obtained under public records requests and numerous interviews reveal a sequence of questionable decisions and missteps, some of them made years ago, some of them in the middle of the crisis.
Among other things, the dam’s federal and state overseers overestimated the durability of the two spillways.
And in public statements during the emergency, they failed to acknowledge – or perhaps
recognise – that while they were busy dealing with one crisis, they were creating a possible new one.
During the darkest hours of the emergency, the fear was that if the hillside collapsed, “It was not whether people would die, but how many would die”, Honea recalled.
State water officials have defended their handling of the crisis at the 770-foot-high dam in the Sierra Nevada foothills 150 miles northeast of San Francisco, saying it was managed as effectively as possible under extraordinary circumstances, including one of the wettest winters on record.
William Croyle, acting head of the California Department of Water Resources, likened the spillway failures to a car getting a flat tyre or running out of oil. “This happened. Stuff happens,” he said last month.