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Residents Near Oroville Dam Brace For Storms After Returning Home

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Northern California, nearly 200,000 people are going back home. They were evacuated a few days ago because of structural problems with the Oroville Dam. State water officials say repairs and other measures have reduced the threat of flooding. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports some residents are relieved. Others are still worried.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: The decision to lift the evacuation order came from the same man who ordered it in the first place, Butte County Sheriff Kory Hornea (ph). The weight of the original evacuation was apparent at a news conference. He carefully explained that the water level is dropping and repairs on the damaged emergency spillway had reduced the risk to the public. Sheriff Hornea said people could return to their homes and businesses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KORY HORNEA: But we're telling them that they have to be vigilant. They have to pay attention to what's going on. And there is the prospect that we could issue another evacuation order if the circumstances change and the risk increases.

GONZALES: Those circumstances include the impact of a new series of storms arriving late tomorrow, but officials say the rain should be light enough and the water level in the dam low enough for the reservoir to handle it. As the news of the lifted evacuation spread, the impact was almost immediate. Roads jammed and people began streaming into pharmacies and grocery stores for food, toiletries and liquor.

DOLORES BLACKWELL: Well, I heard horns honking. It was just like a big celebration. And you could hear people yelling, yay (laughter).

GONZALES: Dolores Blackwell, a self-described school lunch lady, says she lives just below the dam. Her husband works at the dam itself. She had evacuated to her daughter's place on higher ground. She's happy to return home, but she's cautious, too.

BLACKWELL: You never know. You just never know about life, you know?

GONZALES: There weren't any doubts from Justin McCabe. He's a sawmill worker walking out of one store with his hands full of flowers, candy and a valentine for his wife.

JUSTIN MCCABE: Oh, the news is fantastic. I'm thrilled. We can get our lives back.

GONZALES: Did you have to evacuate?

MCCABE: You know, I was supposed to, but I didn't. I stuck it out here. So I'm glad I didn't leave. I made the right call.

GONZALES: But others are not so sure authorities made the right call by lifting the evacuation order. Among them is Victoria Holloway, a social worker who says the only reason she's returned to Oroville is to buy supplies for a group of 200 people who are still evacuated on high ground above the dam.

VICTORIA HOLLOWAY: I'd rather be safe than sorry. And I know that they always try and dial things down, but we've all been through it. I mean, this is the biggest dam and it's in that much jeopardy. There's no way they can stop it.

GONZALES: Such doubts may be justified, says Kurt Copanger, an auto insurance adjuster.

KURT COPANGER: Obviously, you know, a hole developed in the main spillway. Come on, (laughter) that's a failure.

GONZALES: Still, Copanger says he trusts everything is OK. But the whole episode should be a wakeup call about the condition of the dam and California's infrastructure.

COPANGER: It was built in '68, you know? So - and we've been through a long drought. You know, we were without water for so long and it - the lake was so low I think we might have just gotten a little distracted.

GONZALES: But there's no lack of vigilance now. State officials say they're looking even beyond the storm's forecast for this week. Their eyes are set on the spring, when mountain runoff from melting snow could test the dam again. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oroville, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.

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