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Evacuation Order Lifted in Areas Downstream From Oroville Dam

President Trump on Tuesday formally declared an emergency in California and signed off on federal aid to bolster local and state efforts in and around Oroville.

Authorities on Tuesday lifted an evacuation order for nearly 200,000 people who live below the Oroville Dam, where a damaged spillway threatens to collapse and cause catastrophic flooding.

President Donald Trump signed an order approving the use of federal funds to bolster local and state efforts to repair the emergency spillway.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said that an evacuation warning is in effect and urged people, who live downstream from the nation's tallest dam, to stay vigilant. 

Residents returning home should be prepared for "the prospect that we will issue another evacuation order," Honea said. Officials could tell people to leave again "if the situation changes," he said. The first signs that the order was lifted came when Caltrans lifted road closures in the area at 11:30 a.m. and police stopped enforcing the closures.

But not everybody trusted the suggestion.

"I know my brother who evacuated, he's not going back even though they say it's lifted," said Oroville resident Larry Teague. "He doesn't feel comfortable going back."

Indeed, on Tuesday night, others felt the same way and were either staying put at evacuation shelters or were back home ready to move again, if necessary.

"We realize we may have to leave again," said Marilyn McKinney of Oroville. "We have to be prepared; if they say go, we’ll go."

Oroville resident Rachelle Witherell wasn't ready to go back: "We decided to stay because we live in a big ministry. It’s too hard for us to pack up and go when there’s still warnings in effect."

Officials had ordered 188,000 residents to flee to higher ground Sunday after fearing a never-before-used emergency spillway was close to failing and sending a 30-foot wall of water into communities downstream.

Over the weekend, the swollen lake spilled down the unpaved emergency spillway for nearly 40 hours, leaving it badly eroded. The problem occurred six days after engineers discovered a growing hole in the dam's main, concrete spillway. 

Officials defended the decision to suddenly call for mass evacuations Sunday, just a few hours after saying the situation was stable, forcing families to rush to pack up and get out.

"There was a lot of traffic. It was chaos," said Robert Brabant, an Oroville resident who evacuated with his wife, son, dogs and cats. "It was a lot of accidents. It was like people weren't paying attention to other people."


On Tuesday, Honea said the risks to the damaged spillway have been significantly reduced because an inspection found no further erosion. Experts found no additional damage to "compromise the overall integrity" of the spillway.

"The spillway has been stable for four days," said Bill Croyle with the Department of Water Resources.

That said, crews continue to work on stabilizing the emergency spillway, officials said. Roughly 125 crews are tackling the problem both from the ground and the air, placing 40 truckloads of rocks on the eroded sections at Lake Oroville. Crews also dropped giant sandbags, cement blocks and boulders on damaged areas.

"Engineers for the state and federal government, and contracted engineers will continue to direct work on the construction site for days, weeks and, likely, months to come," said Mike Smith with Cal Fire. 

Honea also said the water level at the lake behind the Oroville Dam is low enough to accommodate the expected storms.

The National Weather Service predicts the next bout of rain will come down hard on Wednesday night and continue until at least Friday. Foothills and mountains might get about two inches to four inches of rain, but forecasters said the storm is looking colder than initially projected, meaning lower snow levels and less runoff into Sierra reservoirs than the storms last week.

The brunt of a Friday storm appears to be headed toward Southern California, with lighter rain in the north. Forecasters say rain will diminish Saturday, pick up on Sunday, followed by a wetter, more dynamic storm Monday into Tuesday.

The good news is that since the problem was discovered, the lake level has continued to drop as employees from the California Department of Water Resources have worked furiously to make room for incoming precipitation.

On Tuesday, the agency said water in the main spillway had been flowing at 100,000 cubic feet per second for the past two days. State Department of Water Resources spokesman Chris Orrock said the lake level goal has dropped 12 feet below the top of the spillway. This step will reduce erosion and crews are working to hit a target of 851 feet, nearly 50 feet lower than the maximum capacity of 900 feet. The excess water is being pushed downstream to the Feather River.

Crews began stabilizing the Oroville Dam emergency spillway Monday by transporting bags of boulders by helicopter and dropping them into gouges on the structure.

Fearing a catastrophic disaster if the eroded emergency spillway bursts, Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday asked the Trump administration for federal assistance. In a letter to the president, Brown sought help for the three Northern California counties affected, saying aid is needed to assist the evacuees. 

Trump on Tuesday responded to Brown's request, and declared a major disaster in California, which has been pummeled by storms, and ensuing floods and mudslides, in recent months. He also signed off on federal funding for infrastructure repair in a host of Bay Area counties, including Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa and others.

In Oroville, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security will now "coordinate all disaster relief efforts, which aim to alleviate the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population and to provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures," according to a White House statement.

The goal, the statement continued is "to save lives, to protect property and public health and safety, and to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in the counties of Butte, Sutter, and Yuba." 

Earlier in the day, at a news briefing at the White House, press secretary Sean Spicer said the emergency spillway is a "textbook example" of the nation's major infrastructure that has "fallen into disrepair." And he said that President Trump believes there should be an "overhaul" of the country's "crumbling infrastructure." Nothing specific was outlined.

Meanwhile, the issue quickly became political.

Congressman John Garamendi responded to questions about maintenance to the dam during several years a drought. The biggest question was: Why wasn’t it taken care of?

"The state was using a half a billion dollars trying to build twin tunnels, but they weren’t paying attention to what was going on here," Garamendi said. Environmental activists warned more than a decade ago about the risk of flooding, but those fears were dismissed by both the state and federal governments.

Water was no longer falling over the emergency spillway at Lake Oroville as of Monday, allowing officials to investigate the damage.

But the fears are real now.

The California National Guard put out a notification to all of its 23,000 soldiers and airmen to be ready to deploy. It marked the first time an alert for the entire California National Guard had been issued since the 1992 riots in Los Angeles after a jury acquitted four police officers in the beating of Rodney King.

Back in Oroville, Butte County Animal Control and the North Valley Animal Disaster Group have been caring for nearly 400 dogs, cats, birds, pigs, a few rabbits and even a turtle. The sheriff asked people to retrieve their pets as they return home. To do that, they will need to show photo IDs and the pink copy of an animal intake form.

Disabled evacuees who need help to return to their home are asked to call (530) 342-0221 for para-transport. 

NBC Bay Area's Jodi Hernandez contributed to this report.

for the latest updates on the Oroville Dam Spillway.

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