“Everyone started crying — guys, girls,” 18-year-old Taco Bell worker Jeffrey Chue told the Militant at the emergency center in the fairgrounds here. He was just completing his shift.
“I just left and went home. My parents said, ‘Let’s go,’” Chue said. “But it took 40 minutes to get to the highway, and my gas tank was on empty. It was chaotic on the roads.”
The U.S. capitalist ruling families, for whom every judgment is based on protecting their profits and rule, always blame social disasters like the one unfolding here on natural causes.
Melisa Lattemore, 44, an Oroville housekeeper, heard there was a mandatory evacuation so she and her companion piled a few things in a friend’s truck and headed for the center. “This is a man-made disaster,” she insisted.
Winter rains swelled the Oroville reservoir after years of drought. With the water rising to dangerous levels, engineers let water out of a gated concrete spillway, sending it coursing down a 770-foot drop into the Feather River below. But the rushing water broke up some of the concrete in the 180-foot-wide spillway, creating a 45-foot-deep hole in the chute. Dam engineers reduced the flow of water to try to prevent further erosion. Water in the reservoir rose to 101 percent of capacity.
On Feb. 11 the reservoir overflowed, flooding a parking lot and flowing over the lip of an emergency spillway next to the gated chute.
The next morning engineers told the press and public that the dam was sound and the situation was under control. But the emergency spillway, built out of nothing but dirt, was eroding rapidly.
A few hours later, police agencies suddenly issued an order to evacuate immediately. The order covered 180,000 people from towns downstream along the bloated Feather River — from Oroville to Yuba City. They said the spillway wall could collapse within the hour, creating a 30-foot wall of water and washing away everything in its path.
At the Red Cross evacuation center here Socialist Workers Party members from Oakland met some of the working people who had picked up and left the danger zone on short notice. Farmworkers, housekeepers, retirees, an unemployed secretary, others on disability, a Walmart worker — all joined us to discuss the social crisis they were living through, its effects and its causes.
People spoke about motels jacking up their prices; lost wages; lack of communication and clear direction from emergency personnel; chaos and panic; and traffic gridlock. Some asked why do we have to fill out so many forms to get help — and what about undocumented workers working in the fields?
And they talked about acts of working-class solidarity — people opening their houses to strangers, friends, family and co-workers, bringing donations and volunteering to help.
“While the rich get richer, the infrastructure is deteriorating,” Susan Hildreth, 53, of Gridley said, sitting on her car with two dogs on a leash. “The government didn’t set aside money to maintain the dam and the engineers covered it up. I toured the dam 30 years ago for a class — the control room was like Star Wars. But they said it was old then.”
The crisis exposed aspects of the broader social crisis produced by capitalism’s contraction today. Workers and farmworkers in the area face high rates of unemployment and poverty, and many have been driven into a growing homeless population.
While the government did nothing but tell people to flee, members of Habitat for Humanity and other volunteers organized to get vehicles to try and help the homeless and others to safety.
Some were left to walk from Yuba City to the fairgrounds in Colusa, a 12-hour trip on foot. Very few shelters allowed evacuees to bring their pets.
Authorities knew of problems
Construction began on the Oroville Dam in 1961. It is the tallest dam in the country and has created the second largest reservoir in California. In 2005, Friends of the River and other environmental groups proposed the state upgrade the emergency spillway to prevent the kind of catastrophic failure unfolding today. The proposal was rejected.
When asked why the proposal was refused, Bill Croyle, acting director of the California Department of Water Resources, told the press Feb. 13 that use of the spillway — and the resulting washing away of the soil — was a “new, never-happened-before event.”
The apologists for the rulers have often used the same excuse — this was an unpredictable once-in-a-lifetime event — when preventable disasters strike, from hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to the round of storms that devastated parts of the South in January.
Engineers have reduced the water level in the reservoir — for now — by sending 100,000 cubic feet of water per second down the damaged spillway, further eroding the hillside. More storms are expected later this week and engineers are scurrying to put a temporary fix in place.
“We live in a world of risk,” Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown said at a news conference the day after the evacuation order, expressing the contempt the rulers have for the safety of working people. “Stuff happens, and we respond.”
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