Nearly 200,000 people told to flee crumbling California dam spillway

Evacuation orders for nearly 200,000 people living below the tallest dam in the United States remained in place early on Monday after residents were abruptly told to flee when a spillway appeared in danger of collapse.

Authorities issued the evacuation order on Sunday, saying that a crumbling emergency spillway on Lake Oroville Dam in north California could give way and unleash floodwaters onto rural communities along the Feather River.

See photos of the bursting structure:

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Lake Oroville dam -- emergency spillway and evacuation
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Lake Oroville dam -- emergency spillway and evacuation
TOPSHOT - The Oroville Dam spillway releases 100,000 cubic feet of water per second down the main spillway in Oroville, California on February 13, 2017. Almost 200,000 people were under evacuation orders in northern California Monday after a threat of catastrophic failure at the United States' tallest dam. Officials said the threat had subsided for the moment as water levels at the Oroville Dam, 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Sacramento, have eased. But people were still being told to stay out of the area. / AFP / Josh Edelson (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
OROVILLE, CA - JULY 20: In this handout photo provided by the California Department of Water Resources, Full water levels are visible behind the Oroville Dam at Lake Oroville on July 20, 2011 in Oroville, California. (Photo by Paul Hames/California Department of Water Resources via Getty Images)
California Department of Water Resources personnel monitor water flowing through a damaged spillway on the Oroville Dam in Oroville, California, U.S., on February 10, 2017.
FOLSOM, CA - JULY 20: In this handout photo provided by the California Department of Water Resources, Full water levels are visible behind the Folsom Dam at Folsom Lake on July 20, 2011 in El Folsom, California. (Photo by Paul Hames/California Department of Water Resources via Getty Images)
OROVILLE, CA - AUGUST 19: The Oroville Dam spillway stands dry at Lake Oroville on August 19, 2014 in Oroville, California. As the severe drought in California continues for a third straight year, water levels in the State's lakes and reservoirs is reaching historic lows. Lake Oroville is currently at 32 percent of its total 3,537,577 acre feet. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
65,000 cfs of water flow through a damaged spillway on the Oroville Dam in Oroville, California, U.S., February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Max Whittaker
California Department of Water Resources crews inspect and evaluate the erosion just below the Lake Oroville Emergency Spillway site after lake levels receded, in Oroville, California, U.S., February 13, 2017. Kelly M. Grow/ California Department of Water Resources/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
California Department of Water Resources personnel monitor water flowing through a damaged spillway on the Oroville Dam in Oroville, California, U.S., on February 10, 2017.
A damaged spillway with eroded hillside is seen in an aerial photo taken over the Oroville Dam in Oroville, California, U.S. February 11, 2017. California Department of Water Resources/William Croyle/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. THIS PICTURE WAS PROCESSED BY REUTERS TO ENHANCE QUALITY. AN UNPROCESSED VERSION HAS BEEN PROVIDED SEPARATELY.
A damaged spillway with eroded hillside is seen in an aerial photo taken over the Oroville Dam in Oroville, California, U.S. February 11, 2017. California Department of Water Resources/William Croyle/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Riverbend Park is seen under flood water in Oroville, California on February 13, 2017. Almost 200,000 people were under evacuation orders in northern California Monday after a threat of catastrophic failure at the United States' tallest dam. Officials said the threat had subsided for the moment as water levels at the Oroville Dam, 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Sacramento, have eased. But people were still being told to stay out of the area. / AFP / Josh Edelson (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Crews work on a damaged section of the Oroville Dam in Oroville, California on February 13, 2017. Almost 200,000 people were under evacuation orders in northern California Monday after a threat of catastrophic failure at the United States' tallest dam. Officials said the threat had subsided for the moment as water levels at the Oroville Dam, 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Sacramento, have eased. But people were still being told to stay out of the area. / AFP / Josh Edelson (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A home is seen marooned as the surrounding property is submerged in flood water in Oroville, California on February 13, 2017. Almost 200,000 people were under evacuation orders in northern California Monday after a threat of catastrophic failure at the United States' tallest dam. Officials said the threat had subsided for the moment as water levels at the Oroville Dam, 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Sacramento, have eased. But people were still being told to stay out of the area. / AFP / Josh Edelson (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Riverbend Park is seen under flood water in Oroville, California on February 13, 2017. Almost 200,000 people were under evacuation orders in northern California Monday after a threat of catastrophic failure at the United States' tallest dam. Officials said the threat had subsided for the moment as water levels at the Oroville Dam, 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Sacramento, have eased. But people were still being told to stay out of the area. / AFP / Josh Edelson (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Water is released from the Lake Oroville Dam after an evacuation order was lifted for communities downstream from the dam in Oroville, California, U.S. February 16, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A road is closed by the flooded Feather River outside town below the Lake Oroville Dam after an evacuation order was lifted for communities downstream from the dam in Oroville, California, U.S. February 16, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Rocks are hauled to the Lake Oroville Dam after an evacuation order was lifted for communities downstream from the dam in Oroville, California, U.S. February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
A helicopter flies rocks to the Lake Oroville Dam after an evacuation order was lifted for communities downstream from the dam in Oroville, California, U.S. February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Trucks carry rocks as water is released from the Lake Oroville Dam after an evacuation order was lifted for communities downstream from the dam in Oroville, California, U.S. February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Staff with the California Department of Water Resources watch as water is released from the Lake Oroville Dam after an evacuation was ordered for communities downstream from the dam in Oroville, California, U.S., February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
OROVILLE, CA - FEBRUARY 15: Reconstruction continues in a race to shore up the emergency spillway at Oroville Dam in Oroville, Calif., on Feb. 15, 2017. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
OROVILLE, CA - FEBRUARY 16: Clouds drift in the sky after morning showers at the Oroville Dam overlook where helicopters are ferrying sand and rocks to the dam's emergency spillway reconstruction project in Oroville, Calif., on Feb. 16, 2017. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
OROVILLE, CA - FEBRUARY 16: California Water Service district manager Toni Ruggle (CQ) surveys the Feather River at Riverbed Park downstream from Oroville Dam in Oroville, Calif., on Feb. 16, 2017. For decades, city officials have used the steps at the park to gauge the height of the river. Water up to the fourth step is 100,000 cubic feet per second. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
OROVILLE, CA - FEBRUARY 16: A mallard floats past a picnic table along the swollen Feather River at Riverbed Park downstream from Oroville Dam in Oroville, Calif., on Feb. 16, 2017. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Cots are washed and set to dry at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds evacuation center in Chico, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. State officials rushed to repair an emergency spillway for the Oroville dam -- just 150 miles (241 kilometers) north of San Francisco -- that is threatening to submerge an entire region of northern California after a recent deluge of rain. Photographer: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images
OROVILLE, CA - FEBRUARY 14: A dog sits in the back of a pickup truck as a helicopter picks up a bag of rocks at a staging area near the Oroville Dam on February 14, 2017 in Oroville, California. More than 188,000 people were ordered to evacuate after a hole in the emergency spillway in the Oroville Dam threatened to flood the surrounding area. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
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"Immediate evacuation from the low levels of Oroville and areas downstream is ordered," the Butte County sheriff said in a statement posted on social media.

The California Department of Water Resources said on Twitter at about 4:30 p.m. PST (0030 GMT Monday) that the spillway next to the dam was "predicted to fail within the next hour."

Several hours later the situation appeared less dire, as the damaged spillway remained standing.

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The state water resources department said crews using helicopters would drop rocks to fill a huge gouge, and authorities were releasing water to lower the lake's level after weeks of heavy rains in the drought-plagued state.

By 10 p.m., state and local officials said the immediate danger had passed with water no longer flowing over the eroded spillway. But they cautioned that the situation remained unpredictable.

"Once you have damage to a structure like that it's catastrophic," acting Water Resources director Bill Croyle told reporters. But he stressed "the integrity of the dam is not impacted" by the damaged spillway.

Asked about the evacuation order, Croyle said "It was a tough call to make." He added: "It was the right call to make."

'DO NOT TRAVEL NORTH'

Butte County Sheriff Korey Honea told an earlier news briefing he was told by experts that the hole forming in the spillway could compromise the structure. Rather than risk thousands of lives, the decision was made to order evacuations.

Officials said they feared the damaged spillway could unleash a 30-foot wall of water on Oroville, north of the state capital Sacramento.

They said evacuation orders remained in place for some 188,000 people in Oroville, Yuba County, Butte County, Marysville and nearby communities and would be re-evaluated at dawn.

The Yuba County Office of Emergency Services urged evacuees to travel only to the east, south or west. "DO NOT TRAVEL NORTH TOWARD OROVILLE," the department warned on Twitter.

Evacuation centers were set up at a fairgrounds in Chico, California, about 20 miles northwest of Oroville, but major highways leading south out of the area were jammed as residents fled the flood zone and hotels quickly filled up.

Javier Santiago, 42, fled with his wife, two children and several friends to the Oroville Dam Visitors Center in a public park above the dam and the danger zone.

With blankets, pillows and a little food, Santiago said: "We're going to sleep in the car."

The Oroville dam is nearly full following winter storms that brought relief to the state after four years of drought. Water levels were less than 7 feet (2 meters) from the top of the dam on Friday.

State authorities and engineers on Thursday began releasing water from the dam after noticing that large chunks of concrete were missing from a spillway.

California Governor Jerry Brown asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday to declare the area a major disaster due to flooding and mudslides brought on by the storms.

The earthfill dam is just upstream and east of Oroville, a city of more than 16,000 people.

At 770 feet (230 meters) high, the structure, built between 1962 and 1968, is the tallest U.S. dam, exceeding the Hoover Dam by more than 40 feet (12 meters).

(Additional reporting, writing by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Chris Michaud in New York; Editing by Chris Michaud and Dominic Evans)

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