Floods and Politics

by Lou Binninger


For longtime local residents that have experienced the 1955, 1986 and 1997 floods in Yuba-Sutter Counties, you can skip all the studies and maps. These people would tell you develop more flood control, evacuate early and improve communication.


            People have lacked those benefits. For newcomers, both Oroville Dam and the New Bullards Bar Dam were built after 1955 to primarily increase control of our raging rivers.


The December 24, 1955 deluge destroyed primarily Yuba City and Sutter County with the levee breaking off of Garden Hwy at Shanghai Bend. When the breach occurred, Marysville was already evacuated due to having the lowest levees. Many people and business assets relocated to Yuba City from Marysville.


In the end, 40,000 people would evacuate the surrounding area, with over 600 needing to be rescued by boat or helicopter and 38 people dying in the floodwater. It was a devastating disaster and a strong lesson for the area that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calls “the most prone to intense flooding of any river valley in the United States.”


The Feb. 20, 1986 and Jan. 2, 1997 levee breaks occurred behind the current WalMart in Linda (Yuba River) and on the Arboga levee (Feather River) at the end of Anderson Avenue. The one interesting change in flood emergency strategy after 1997 was to remove the Yuba County Board of Supervisors from making evacuation decisions.

"Two hours before the levee broke, we were told there were no problems with the levee, yet my understanding was they were working on boils at noon," said Supervisor Al Amaro in 1997.


By 11 a.m. on Jan. 2, the Feather River gauge at Yuba City reached 77.5 feet, the level at which a mandatory evacuation should have been declared. About seven hours later, Marysville, Yuba City and Sutter County ordered an evacuation. Yuba County officials didn't evacuate until the Arboga levee gave way.


Yet Sheriff Gary Tindel had requested of the Supervisors that evacuations begin one-two weeks prior. He was denied. He was also voted out next election after being the scapegoat for the Supervisors’ botched decision-making.


Politicians know little to nothing about flood crises or dealing with people in extreme emergencies. After the 1997 debacle Yuba County gave the Sheriff and the Director of Emergency Services the power to declare evacuations.

The politicians wanted to avoid political fall-out from evacuations proving later to be unnecessary. In 1997, their foot-dragging cost 3 people’s lives, tens of thousands of animals dying and millions of dollars of damage to assets that could have been moved from harm’s way.


February 7, 2017, the Oroville Dam Spillway failure caused a downstream evacuation initiated by Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea after overhearing concerned crisis managers at the dam. Being warned of the threat of a new type of flood calamity people evacuated.


Faced with the usual limited exits from cities there was gridlock while Yuba City and Sutter County gave opposing evacuation orders. The other trouble in 2017 was poor and faulty communication in general.


In spite of social media, websites, and cell phones, not being able to rely on a radio station that would simply give out facts and local instructions was a bummer. The amount of social media hearsay and fake news was worse than nothing at all and a big step backward compared to radio station briefings connected to crisis managers.


Recently, Yuba Water Agency provided a grant of $65,000 to buy “flood and levee inundation maps and associated products” for the Office of Emergency Services. The grant request said the money was “critical for emergency response efforts for public safety.” Sounds like money for a clean-up operation versus proactively preventing loss.


In reading the details it seems that the new mapping will tell where the flood water will flow and stand the deepest and longest. Hopefully the people, animals and assets are long gone by then. The study tools won’t help in the middle of the crisis getting people out via the limited and overwhelmed escape routes.

It’s the same problem that always has been. In fact, there are no new roads or highways being built or in the works to enhance evacuations. Due to politicians being bought-off, Marysville is the biggest choke-point in the region even on a nonemergency good day.


Taxpayers fear that so many studies and reports to save the world end up lost in a cabinet a decade later.  The need that does not change in a flood is early evacuation and ‘old school’ radio communication. The rest is a mop-up effort.

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