20,000 Indian Americans affected by Lake Oroville Dam evacuations in California

A damaged spillway with eroded hillside is seen in an aerial photo taken over the Oroville Dam in Oroville, California, February 11, 2017. California Department of Water Resources/William Croyle/Handout via Reuters.

Some 188,000 residents in the river valley below the Lake Oroville Dam, 65 miles north of Sacramento, California, including around 20,000 Indian Americans, were ordered from their homes on Sunday when one of two damaged spillways appeared in danger of imminent collapse from severe erosion.

Operators of the dam prepared on Monday to shore up a crumbling emergency spillway with bags of rock while bleeding off excess water from the rain-swollen Oroville lake to ease the threat of inundating the Northern California communities under evacuation orders downstream.

Several hours later, the situation appeared less dire as water levels subsided behind the dam, which ranks as the tallest in the United States, and the weakened unpaved hillside spillway beside it remained largely intact, reported Reuters.

Officials also were concerned about a large gouge that opened up last week in the dam’s main spillway – a concrete-lined chute running adjacent to the eroding hillside spillway – after weeks of heavy rain in a state that has endured five years of drought. More storms are expected on Wednesday or Thursday.

State water resource officials were continuing to assess the damage on Monday before proceeding with plans to repair some of the erosion with rocks and boulders that would be dropped into the hillside by helicopters, said Richard Cordova, a spokesman for incident commanders in the town of Oroville, which lies at the foot of the dam.

Precipitation in Northern California already is running at more than twice the average level for the season and is on track to make 2017 the region’s wettest year on record, surpassing the 1982-83 season, when nearly 90 inches of rain fell, state water data shows.

The earth-filled dam lies just upstream and east of Oroville, a town of more than 16,000 people. At 770 feet high, the structure, built between 1962 and 1968, is the tallest U.S. dam, exceeding the Hoover Dam by more than 40 feet.

Evacuation orders remained in place on Monday morning for the estimated 188,000 people who live in the wider potential flood zone along the Feather River below the dam.

The Yuba County Office of Emergency Services urged evacuees to travel east, south or west. “DO NOT TRAVEL NORTH TOWARD OROVILLE,” the department warned on Twitter.

The Washington Post noted the lake is the linchpin of California’s government-run water delivery system, sending water from the Sierra Nevada for agriculture in the Central Valley and for residents and businesses in Southern California.

After a record-setting drought, California has been battered by potentially record-setting rain, with the Northern California region getting 228 percent more than its normal rainfall for this time of year. The average annual rainfall of about 50 inches had already been overtaken with 68 inches in 2017 alone.

The evacuation took residents by surprise.

April Torlone, 18, was at work at a Dollar General in Live Oak, California, Sunday evening when she received a flood emergency alert on her phone. She hurried home, she said, where she had about 10 minutes to gather some clothes and her late father’s ashes.

Torlone drove with her mother and sister to her grandmother’s house in Sacramento, arriving well after midnight. The roughly 40-mile trip took six hours, she said. Gas stations were packed and stores were running out of food. Along the way, they saw more than 30 people camped out in their cars on the side of the road, many with trunks full of belongings, Torlone said.

“I just hope everyone is safe and finds a place to stay, and that no one’s homes are damaged,” she told The Washington Post. “It’s honestly so sad.”

Shelters, churches, schools and seven Sikh temples opened their doors, and people offered to open their homes to strangers via Twitter messages. Hotels and motels out of harm’s way filled up quickly, creating communities of the suddenly displaced. Beale Air Force Base, east of Marysville, also opened its gates to area residents and said early Monday that it had received approximately 250 evacuees, re[ported The Washington Post.

Officials said 250 law enforcement personnel were being deployed to patrol the evacuated areas.

India’s Tribune newspaper reported the around 20,000 Indian Americans, many of them Sikhs, are from the counties of Oroville, Butte and Sutter.

According to Jaswant Singh Bains, president of Yuba City Gurdwara, the evacuation announcement was made around 6.30 am local time on Sunday when huge number of devotees was present in the gurdwara to pay obeisance on ‘sangrand’.

“The sudden announcement created a panic amongst the devotees. We quickly wrapped up the programme and asked them to return to their homes,” Bains said.

He added that though evacuation was only recommended in Yuba City, around 20,000 Punjabis got stuck in the three counties where the evacuation was ordered following the potential threat of uncontrolled flood waters flowing down to low-lying areas.

According to Surinder Mehta, a resident in Butte County, the evacuation announcement was made several times. “They kept on announcing repeatedly that it is not a drill and the area residents should move to safer places,” Mehta told The Tribune over phone.

According to Satnam Chahal, chairperson North American Punjabi Association (NAPA) whose volunteers are helping evacuees in affected area, the threat seemed to have declined a little.

“The helicopters kept on depositing the rocks filled with containers throughout the day to strengthen the potential fatal points on the spillway. Also, the water level inside the reservoir has decreased considerably,” said Chahal.

Though gurdwaras in the areas have planned to shift ‘Swaroops’ to safer places, they have now postponed the plans till next announcement, he

Gurdwaras in Sacramento, California, are offering food and shelter to all the residents evacuated from the Yuba City, following fears of the Oroville Dam collapsing, reported Tribune.

“Sikh temples in Sacramento offering Food & Shelter. They are open for ALL people evacuated from Yuba City #OrovilleDam #OrovilleSpillway.”