Evacuees wait in line for a meal at a shelter.
It was sudden, potentially deadly — and nothing any of the residents of a California valley town could have imagined.
Nearly 200,000 people were told to grab what they could — now — and head for higher ground or face being swept away by a breach in the Oroville Dam, the nation’s tallest.
Panic set in as the mass of northern Californians were forced to confront a threat of biblical proportions: a 30-foot wall of water that threatened to come crashing down on their homes.
“Everyone was running around. It was pure chaos,” Oroville, Calif., resident Maggie Cabral told local TV news station KFSN.
The ensuing exodus resembled a 1970s disaster movie.
“All of the streets were immediately packed with cars, people in my neighborhood grabbing what they could and running out the door and leaving,” Cabral said.
Residents endured hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic — and some drivers even ditched their cars on the highway when they ran out of gas.
“Nothing like this has ever happened,” Sean Dennis, a 30-year-old chef from Yuba City,told NBC News. “We just grabbed what we could.”
The major problem — a hole in an emergency spillway — surfaced when the outlet was put to use over the weekend for the first time in its 50-year history. The main spillway was damaged last week.
Authorities were deeply concerned the hole could cause the entire spillway to break down, releasing the rushing torrent of water on downstream towns.
By late Sunday, water was no longer flowing over the emergency spillway, but the evacuation order remained in place on Monday, as water officials continued draining the lake in preparation for more rainfall.