Evacuation Blues

Five days a week, I slide into my Honda Fit around 6:45 AM, pull out of my assigned parking spot, enter Forestwood Drive from the parking lot, and turn left at the corner. A few blocks later, I turn right, cross the Queens Street bridge over California Highway 99 and enter the freeway with a left turn. An hour later, having left Highway 99 ten miles south of Yuba City and picked up Highway 113, I exit the freeway at Davis in order find a parking spot on the UC Davis campus and go to work.

I’ve been doing this for nearly two years. I’ve driven on dark winter mornings when the fog was so dense the trees which line one stretch of 113 were hidden and only the white dashes down the center of the road kept me going in the right director. I’ve driven during pounding rain with wind so fierce I was afraid I would be blown into oncoming traffic. I’ve driven at dawn when the rising sun glinting across flooded rice fields turned the world to gold or cast color across the cloud-dappled sky like spilled strawberry milk.

I know that road well. I know how long it takes to traverse in all kinds of weather. I had no idea how an evacuation order could change things.

I have to confess, I wasn’t watching developments at the Oroville Dam in Northern California. Even though I was transplanted from South Dakota nearly four years ago, I still don’t know the geography of the state. I knew Oroville lay to the north of Yuba City because I pass the Oroville exit once a month when I head for Chico to see my spiritual director. Beyond that, I had no knowledge of the community, and had no idea the tallest dam in the United States held back a vast reservoir in that area.

Late Sunday afternoon, my neighbor knocked at the door to tell me that he was “bugging out,” and advised me to do the same. The expression on my face must have told him I had no idea why I should leave my home. He told me the Oroville Dam was in danger of giving way. I thanked him for the news and checked the news on my iPad. The evacuation order at that time — approximately 5:30 — was for communities in the Feather River basin. Although Marysville, across the bridge from Yuba City was on the list, Yuba City was not. I decided to go to Walmart to pick up a second cat carrier and a few supplies I might need for an evacuation.

The Walmart parking lot was nearly empty and exiting employees told me an evacuation order had been issued for Yuba City. I checked the news again, and discovered that in the 30 minutes it had taken me to change and drive to Walmart, the situation had changed. I drove home, packed a bag with clothes for a week, picked up my personal computer (heaven forbid I lose the book I’m writing!), caught my cats (which took time because they were terrified by the sirens), and began a drive so familiar to me I could almost make it in my sleep.

An hour later, I had managed to drive six blocks. Traffic from Oroville, and all the small communities between Oroville and Yuba City, was heading south on Highway 99. Although I didn’t know it, evacuees from Marysville were being routed through Yuba City because Highway 70 lay along the Feather River and was closed. And, of course, Yuba City residents were heading out. At that point, I made a mistake that cost me two hours.

I was two blocks from the entrance ramp to Highway 99, and ignorant of the traffic gridlock associated with evacuations. Keep in mind, South Dakota has a population of approximately 850,000 people; an estimated 180,000 people — more than 20% of the population of South Dakota — were being evacuated along one highway. Vehicles were crawling — and stopped at those junctures where a driver pulling an RV decided to block an intersection rather than follow state law. I checked Google maps which advised me to take Highway 70 instead of Highway 99. Google maps didn’t know Highway 70 had been closed hours earlier.

I zipped across town, only to discover the bridge blocked and myself at the end of a slowly moving queue of vehicles miles from the highway entrance ramp. At approximately 10:30 PM, three hours after getting into my vehicle, I made the left turn which allowed me to enter the flow of traffic on Highway 99. Three hours after that, I reached Woodland, approximately 40 miles to the south of Yuba City. After six hours in a small car with discontented cats, my legs were cramping, my back ached and I had a headache pounding loudly enough to accompany Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

I still had 20 miles to drive, and had realized during my drive that I had forgotten a few important things, which meant I needed to make a stop at the 24-hour Walmart store in Dixon before going to my daughter’s house. I arrived around 2 a.m., unpacked the car, settled the cats, and finally crawled into bed around 3 a.m. I was too exhausted to be concerned about the future. I had to be at work at 8 a.m., and I just wanted to sleep, and sleep I did, deeply and soundly.

That was a little over a day ago. I haven’t checked the news this morning. As of last night, the evacuation order remained in place. Some news sources reported that Yuba City was under an evacuation advisory, not an evacuation order, but with the highway closed, that’s a moot point for me. If you can’t go home, you can’t go home.

Contributing to concerns at this point is another storm expected to arrive later this week. The design of the emergency spillway has concerned folks in the area for at least 10 years, but the folks operating the dam hadn’t been concerned. In their defense, until the recent storms (which have pounded our drought-stricken area for weeks), water had never in the dam’s history reached the current levels. So, now we have a damaged spillway, a damaged emergency spillway, and little more than sandbags and rocks standing between a huge reservoir of water and major disaster.

Hope rests in lowering water levels enough to avoid a disaster if Thursday’s storm brings the anticipated precipitation. If it doesn’t, even UC Davis may have to be evacuated. Having coped with one evacuation, I’m hoping — really, really hoping — that sandbags and lower water levels are enough!