OROVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Northern California residents, who had spent days at evacuation shelters, were allowed to return to their homes but many stayed only long enough to pack valuables before fleeing an approaching storm that will test recently repaired spillways at the nation’s tallest dam. Authorities say the immediate danger has passed for the nearly 200,000 people living downstream of the Oroville Dam. They said the Lake Oroville water level was 26 feet below the emergency spillway by Wednesday night. But new storms are forecast to hit Oroville, which is about 70 miles north of Sacramento, and not everyone is sticking around to find out if the repairs hold. Here’s what residents say about living below the dam:
‘I JUST COULDN’T SLEEP’
A 34-year-old who lives blocks away from the levee said he had to leave after spending a restless night thinking about what could happen to him if it fails.
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“I tried to sleep here last night, and I just couldn’t sleep,” said Matthew Prumm. He estimates that “there would be a 30-foot wall of water coming from the spillway.”
He said Wednesday that friends kept sending text messages, including one that said: “If you’re still in town, get the hell out because I know people who say it’s going to breach if the storm is heavy enough.”
Prumm left home around midnight to stay with his parents, who live at a higher elevation. He’s got a house in the mountains and will stay there at least until the upcoming storms pass.
“I packed bins and loaded them into my car. I had to feed my chickens and tend to a few things. I’m not hanging out here for long.”
‘I WILL NOT STAY HERE’
Chantel Ramirez, 35, returned home Wednesday but didn’t plan to stay the night.
The mother of two packed as many clothes, family pictures and keepsakes as her car could hold and was heading south to stay with relatives.
“My car is completely packed,” she said. “I will not stay here until the evacuation is completely lifted.” Authorities lifted the evacuation order but left a warning in effect and have told residents to be prepared to leave again on a moment’s notice.
Her house in downtown Oroville is three blocks from the river, which is so swollen “it can’t hold much more,” she said.
“We don’t know if we’ll have a house to return to,” Ramirez said before leaving with her 16-year-old and 10-year-old.
‘GOING TO BE PREPARED’
Leanne Fowler has lived in the shadow of the Oroville Dam her whole life and says her family is not leaving.
“When we were in school they talked about if the dam breaks or if there were problems,” said the 35-year-old woman. “It was always something we talked about but would never happen.”
Fowler, her husband and their 13-year-old son live alongside the Feather River.
“We’ve been having a rough go,” she said, adding that her house burned down last August and the family has been sleeping on their property in a camper. Fowler is also eight months pregnant and has preeclampsia.
She says they plan to stay but are heeding the warning to be ready in case disaster does strike.
“We just are going to be prepared. We’re going to have stuff packed up and ready to go,” she said. “Nothing is worse than being told, ‘Get out right now!'” and leaving in a panic, she said.
Gecker reported from San Francisco.