Northwest officials look to learn from California dam evacuation

A rainstorm broke a logjam here at the Beaver Lake Dam, sending a wall of water down a creek. (KATU Photo)

There are plenty of large and small dams in Oregon and southwest Washington that could force evacuations if they experience similar problems that have plagued California’s Oroville Dam.

About 200,000 people were evacuated Sunday after an emergency spillway eroded at that dam.

The risk for people living below dams is real and officials here are making evacuation plans for emergencies.

A spillway problem happened at one local dam several years ago. In 2009 neighbors said the spillway at the Beaver Lake Dam clogged with trees. And during a rainstorm, the logjam broke, sending a wall of water down a creek below the dam, inundating houses along the way.

While there aren’t any immediate risks from dams at local reservoirs like Bull Run, there have been concerns.

The federal Energy Regulatory Commission singled out the need for repairs on spillway gates at three reservoirs below Mount St. Helens in 2010.

PacifiCorp, which operates the dams, said it finished those repairs in 2013.

Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Management said the metro area hasn’t seen a massive need for evacuations since 1996, when the Willamette River flooded much of downtown Oregon City, parts of Tigard and threatened to top the seawall in downtown Portland.

Officials here are watching what’s happening below that dam in California.

“It’s a massive evacuation. Anything like that here would pose a lot of challenges,” said Dan Douthit, with the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management.

Officials here expect the biggest risk for evacuations would be from a massive earthquake or chemical spill instead of flooding. Still, they expect what’s happening below that California dam will hold valuable lessons for some future emergency here.

“We’ve been watching closely the situation there,” Douthit said. “Anytime there’s an evacuation occurring anywhere in the country, we want to learn from it and see what’s working and what’s not working so that we’re better prepared locally.”

Their biggest effort is to get the word out in an emergency. But they also said you need an emergency kit at home and one in your car.

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