A single photograph of rapid erosion below Oroville Dam's emergency spillway -- and an unidentified geologist's worried question about whether the local sheriff knew how dire the situation might be -- were the key events that led to the evacuation of 180,000 people living along the Feather River on Feb. 12.
As people fled Oroville and surrounding communities, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, who ordered the evacuation, described the situation as "just an ugly, shitty mess, and we are trying to make the best of it."
Those details of the Oroville crisis emerge from a series of stories and interviews published by The Associated Press, the Sacramento Bee and the Chico Enterprise-Record. The accounts are based on 35 pages of notes from the California Department of Water Resources that AP obtained under the California Public Records Act.
The notes recount how during the afternoon of Feb. 12, five days after a breach in the dam's main spillway triggered a series of events that led to an uncontrolled overflow over an emergency weir. The overflow, the first in the dam's 48-year history, rapidly eroded a slope below the weir -- a scenario that a 2014 safety review had deemed so unlikely it didn't merit serious study.
As late as 2 p.m. on Feb. 12, the Department of Water Resources was reassuring the public that the flows, which were just a tiny fraction of those envisioned pouring over the weir and down a steep slope to the Feather River, were under control.
But according to the newly published notes and interviews, that assessment changed by late afternoon when a still-anonymous geologist approached Pat Whitlock, the chief of DWR's Oroville field division, with a picture of the devastating erosion below the weir.
"If it wasn't for one geologist who came down and got (his) attention," the notes recount, Whitlock was "afraid that we wouldn't have ever caught the problem."
Honea, the Butte County sheriff, recounted in interviews with the Bee and the Enterprise-Record that he was getting ready to depart an incident command post at the Oroville field division office when he saw Whitlock looking at a picture. He heard one of a group of people huddled around Whitlock say, "Does the sheriff know about this?"
Honea's account of what happened next, from the Enterprise-Record:
“I could tell Pat Whitlock was concerned. I could tell the people that had brought the picture to his attention were very concerned, but they had to explain to me what it meant. I was actually ready to go home for the evening. That’s when I walked up to say goodbye to everybody, saw them looking at the picture.
“When they told me the picture was showing erosion, I said, ‘OK, what does that mean? They said, ‘We need to talk more about it.’ They were probably gone 10 or 15 minutes. When they came back in, I could tell there was a high degree of concern among the group. By that time, (then-acting director of DWR) Bill Croyle had joined.
“It was then, I began to interrogate the group, if you will, just so I could really hone in on the critical pieces of information needed to make a decision. It seemed that time was of the essence. I’ve talked about it a lot -- at that point, the realization struck me that there could be significant loss of life if we didn’t act.
“I said to the group, essentially, it sounds to me like we need to evacuate. There were some side conversations in the room, probably 40 or 50 people in the conference room, and at that point, in a rather loud and assertive tone, I said, ‘Everybody listen to me,’ and kind of recounted the facts that had been presented to illustrate what the threat was and checked back with the subject matter experts and asked, ‘Do I understand this correctly?’ They said yes.
“I said, ‘It sounds to me we need to order an evacuation. If anyone disagrees with that or has a better alternative I need to know now,’ and the room was silent, everybody was looking at me. I did a visual check in with other incident commanders. I kind of got that confirmation I was doing the right thing."
It was later, during a 7:30 p.m. meeting with other officials that Honea summarized the situation -- jammed traffic on roads leading out of Oroville, a Chico evacuation center filling up, media clamoring for new details of the emergency spillway threat.
"Yes, there is confusion and chaos," the notes quote him as saying. "Better than what it could be. ... Just an ugly, shitty mess and we are trying to make the best of it."