What The Oroville Dam and San Jose Flooding Crisis Teaches Us about Emergency Preparedness

March 6th, 2017

By Jonathan Lim, CHHS Extern

The recent Oroville Dam crisis highlighted America’s need to repair its many aging dams. In the Oroville case, authorities responded quickly enough that the 180,000 people most endangered by the dam’s potential failure were evacuated. This may be a dangerous sign, as the average age of our nation’s 84,000 dams are 52 years old, and of those, experts classify 4,000 of those dams as “deficient.”  That this crisis is a symbol of the need to reinvest in American infrastructure has already been much opined, and from both sides of the political spectrum. However, this crisis can also serve to as a way review and refine our emergency response procedures in the event of potential catastrophic failure of a dam, or any other component of our nation’s critical infrastructure.

The American Society of Civil Engineers classifies the Oroville dam and nearly 14,000 other like it as “high hazard” dams, meaning that failure of the dam could also entail loss of human life. Many dams that were originally built as “low hazard” dams in sparsely populated regions are now considered high hazard because of population shifts, and this number may increase even more. This will place greater priority demands on local, state, and federal government to monitor these dams and prepare for emergency measures. Here, the relatively swift evacuation of 180,000 – 200,000 people around the dam can serve as a model, criticisms of the evacuation notwithstanding. It will also be helpful to compare the evacuation procedures to an incident in which the evacuation warning came too late, in this case the San Jose floods.

Timeline of Evacuation

             On February 7, part of the Oroville Dam’s main spillway collapsed, and on the morning of Saturday, February 11, water began to top an emergency spillway that was being used. On Sunday, around 4 p.m., officials began to issue evacuation orders and advisories. The advisories started at the local level, with the Butte County sheriff first initiating the notification. Later, around 7:45 p.m., the California Department of Public Works also issued an evacuation order. Officials used robo-calls, text messages, media alerts, and social media to communicate the need for evacuation. California Governor Jerry Brown issued an emergency order hours later to facilitate state aid to the region. At this point, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent an incident management team to the governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Result of Evacuation

             In total, roughly 180,000 – 200,000 people were evacuated from the region. There were some complaints of “mass chaos” in the hours following the evacuation order. Many of the complaints centered around traffic “chokepoints” that local officials were unprepared to clear. Some unprepared evacuees also ran out of gas. The Butte County Sheriff maintains that evacuation was the correct decision, even if the flooding that was feared did not occur. Still, the Sheriff admitted that the issues with the evacuation will serve as lessons learned for future emergency management. They will have to look at ways to alleviate traffic in the case of mass evacuation, and are already considering a more limited evacuation process if it is the spillway—and not the dam entire—that is at risk of failure.

Criticisms of the evacuation notwithstanding, the end result was that almost all the residents were successfully evacuated from the danger zone. This contrasts with the San Jose flooding which occurred about a week later. In that case, many residents were not aware of the flood risk until the floodwaters reached their home. In reviewing what went wrong, officials noted that Santa Clara County had begun working on linking to a FEMA-run warning system, but it had not yet been implemented. San Jose relied on the County’s own warning system, but that system required residents to opt in. Further, the County’s warning system may not have been tested properly: many subscribers stated that they did not receive any alerts. Further complicating the evacuation efforts were language barriers. Many of the residents in the affected areas spoke Vietnamese or Spanish, but officials were apparently unprepared to communicate with them. The city did not sound any sirens or other alarms when the flooding began. Finally, there was a breakdown in interagency communication that does not appear to have been an issue in Oroville. City officials blamed water district officials, who e-mailed the city’s emergency operations center early in the morning before the flooding. City officials complained that the water district officials should have telephoned instead in order to convey urgency. The National Weather Service also issued a flood warning that was not fully heeded. The Oroville evacuation response seems much more favorable in light of what went wrong in San Jose.


Since both San Jose and Oroville are in California, the differences in the evacuation response highlight the importance of proper evacuation preparedness at the city and county level. Local authorities should have better knowledge of the best way to communicate to residents, including overcoming language barriers. They should also be aware of road conditions and the areas where dangerous chokepoints could occur. Officials should have both high tech and low tech means of communicating evacuation orders. While efforts to repair the nation’s aging infrastructure are already underway and may proceed more in earnest after Oroville, local emergency management authorities can prepare for the worst by examining and testing their own evacuation procedures.



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