A Magazine from California State University, ChicoSpring 2017 Issue

In the Wake of Crisis

In the Wake of Crisis

Campus community rises to the occasion

The news was in stark contrast to an otherwise pleasant afternoon, and it spread quickly: 'If you're in Oroville or the area to the south, get out. This is not a drill.'

On February 12, 2017, after weeks of nearly nonstop rain, the lake behind the nation’s tallest dam had risen to the brim. The Oroville Dam concrete spillway—damaged beyond repair and eroding exponentially—had been expelling as much water as it could for days. But, as more water entered the lake than could leave it, water began spilling over an emergency earthen spillway the previous morning for the first time in the dam’s 49-year history. Initial news from supervising engineers was favorable, until the emergency flow tapered back and a critical risk emerged.

Under the flowing water, the auxiliary spillway’s earthen surface had been severely eroded and was at risk of failing. A 30-foot wall of water could potentially hit the valley floor in a matter of hours. With consultation from engineers and other public safety experts, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea made a chilling call—everyone in the shadow of the dam needed to evacuate. Immediately.

More than 180,000 residents, including the majority of the city of Oroville, received 60 minutes to gather their belongings and head to safety in the north, south, or higher ground. In the hurried exodus, panicked residents clogged the few roads leading out of Oroville, knowing that whatever they left behind may be gone when they returned—whenever that might be.

Maly Xiong, a Chico State senior working toward her BFA in art studio, was visiting her family in Oroville when she received the evacuation warning on her phone. After confirming the warning online and on social media, she and her family were some of the last to leave their neighborhood.

“My father did not want to leave,” said Xiong, who finally made it back to her Chico apartment around 11 p.m., where eight family members waited out the evacuation orders, which were not reduced to a warning until nearly 48 hours later. “A slow Sunday afternoon became a nightmare, which went on until officials called off the evacuation warning a couple days afterward.”

Resident Rebecca Belser (BS, Business Administration, ’05) stayed in Oroville, where her husband was working 12-hour night shifts as an officer with Oroville Police Department. Fearing she wouldn’t be able to return home if she left, for two days she was unable to get to Chico State, where she works in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences.

“So, I sat and waited,” she said. “Being confined to a town that resembled a ghost town with no resources was simply surreal.”

In the evacuation’s immediacy and aftermath, the University community provided an impactful response. An ad hoc group of volunteers stepped up to provide nursing, food, and a welcome distraction. Faculty in the disciplines of engineering and geology shared their expertise to both media and those addressing the immediate and future challenges. And alumni, serving in their everyday roles as law enforcement, engineers, reporters, and local philanthropists, cast their net wide and far, rising up to the occasion.

Oroville Dam Feb. 12 2017

(Photo courtesy of Chris Kaufman/Appeal-Democrat)

Connecting through Care, Food, and Play: Chico State Plays a Part in the National Story

Thousands of frazzled evacuees landed at evacuation centers around Chico, including the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, and as food, clothing, and other supplies rolled in through the community’s generosity, the people whose lives had been abruptly uprooted were understandably out of sorts. Some evacuees required health care, most needed sustenance, and others, especially families and children, simply needed a mental escape.

When Chico State nursing major Keri Fong saw Oroville residents scrambling to Chico evacuation centers, it was her instinct to respond.

The graduating senior immediately contacted Peggy Rowberg, director of the University’s School of Nursing, to see how and where she and her fellow nursing students could volunteer. After consulting with Butte County Public Health, Rowberg’s students were directed to the fairgrounds evacuation center.

“As soon as we were notified, we wanted to dedicate our time and put our nursing skills to work,” Fong said. For a few days, Chico State nursing students worked hand-in-hand with public health officials, often spending up to eight hours a day caring for evacuees.

“These were real-life experiences that the students were getting,” said Rowberg. “They were learning while giving back and, to me, that was awesome.”

Nursing student Shannon Watson

Nursing student Shannon Watson assisted with patient care and health needs for evacuees at the Silver Dollar
Fairgrounds evacuation center. (Jason Halley/University Photographer)

What the students experienced represented a good cross section of real-world ailments, though the environment “was very different from what we’ve learned in the hospitals and clinical rotation,” Fong said.

Some evacuees forgot their medications. A few had low blood sugar. Others simply didn’t feel well. Beyond the basics, students were also providing one of the most important services of nursing: someone who listens.

“One woman that came to me was really stressed and upset because she’d left her cats behind and she was really worried,” Fong said. “I just provided her with emotional support.”

Fong said the students were moved by the gravity of the situation.

“As a nursing student, it felt really rewarding to give back to our community and use what we’ve learned,” Fong said.

While the nursing students cared for the evacuees, business management major David Chalem, a junior, saw news footage of people displaced by the crisis and Phi Kappa Tau’s philanthropy chairman knew it was an opportunity to serve.

Fifteen members of the fraternity arrived at the fairgrounds evacuation center early on the morning of February 15, and saw firsthand what more than two days’ worth of fatigue, uncertainty, and worry look like.

“I saw a lot of people that were down in the dumps, which is totally understandable,” Chalem said. “We wanted to bring in an uplifting energy as much as we possibly could.”

After they arrived, Phi Kappa Tau’s members got to work, spending the early morning hours serving breakfast, cleaning and putting away cots, then preparing dozens of lunches in the afternoon. Joined by fellow fraternities Kappa Sigma and Lambda Chi Alpha, as well as sorority Sigma Kappa, the students provided much-needed nourishment and lifted the evacuees’ spirits.

“They were grateful for everything we did,” Chalem said. “We were there to help and do whatever we could.”

Pic of Phi Kappa Tau

The Chico State men’s soccer team brought in soccer goals, balls, and some cheerful play to roughly 70 children staying
at the evacuation center. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer McGraw/CBS13)

For evacuees in better health, many wound up on cots at the evacuation center with little to pass the time, overwhelmed with fears about what might be happening or could happen to their homes. The Chico State men’s soccer team wasn't sure what to offer. But they mobilized what they had: six mini soccer goals, about 30 soccer balls, and a ton of youthful exuberance.

Head coach Felipe Restrepo texted his players to ask if they would forgo their regularly scheduled practice at University Stadium to instead visit the fairgrounds and see if some kids wanted to kick the balls around.

The players’ response: A unanimous “yes.”

“We were just there to help the kids blow off some steam,” said Restrepo. “So, we walked through all of the facilities and grabbed kids off their cots and said, ‘Come play with us.’”

Roughly 50 to 70 children joined them, and they all played until dark.

“We saw it as an opportunity to lean into the community and bring some cheer into adverse circumstances,” Restrepo said.

Several television crews took notice. The Wildcats’ actions were broadcast on news outlets located from the Bay Area to Sacramento. The students’ efforts were even written about in the Washington Post.

Amid the potential for major destruction, the players provided a brief respite, and learned more about themselves and the overall situation by simply spending time with the families and children.

“I didn’t realize the severity of the situation until we got there,” said freshman business major Cooper Renteria. “I didn’t realize the impact we could have by just showing up to offer some support.”

Chico State men soccer team 2017

The Chico State men’s soccer team brought in soccer goals, balls, and some cheerful play to roughly 70 children staying at the evacuation center. (Photo courtesy of David Chalen)

Restrepo wants to make it clear that his team was a small part of a bigger story.

“All we did was show up and play soccer with the kids for a few hours,” he said. “Meanwhile, you’ve got people bringing load after load of supplies. You would finish moving one load of supplies into the facility, turn around, and there would be another load. Waves of students and locals were showing up asking how they could help. I was so impressed with the people of Chico. I feel grateful to live in a community that thinks that way about each other.”

In the end, Restrepo believes that his student-athletes received at least as much as they gave from the experience.

“This program is about trying to grow winners in family, community, and career,” said Restrepo. “Our motto is: ‘Be a man built for others.’ And to me this was an obvious way for them to see that in action.”

Alumni in Action

With 20 percent of our alumni living in Butte County and tens of thousands more in the region, countless alumni were called into action, rendering aid, providing expertise, and ensuring safety.

Aidan Rontani

Rev. Aidan RontaniThe Rev. Aidan Rontani (BA, History, ’00) is the assisting priest at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, one of the first Chico-area churches to offer its premises as an evacuation center.

“When we learned of the evacuation order, it was never really any question that we would reach out to welcome our neighbors in distress. Our church members swung into action to welcome our guests. Overnight, our new Parish Life Center transformed into a refuge for over 60 evacuees. One of the most powerful encounters we had was with a family of Iraqi refugees. Having fled terrorist death threats in Iraq, they never imagined they would have to flee their home again. Yet here they were, helping their fellow evacuees set up cots and helping us clean up each day, still thankful to live in the Land of the Free. It was a powerful lesson in hope and who we are all called to be.”

Alexa Benson-Valavanis

Alexa Benson-ValavanisAlexa Benson-Valavanis (BA, Journalism, ’00) is the CEO of the North Valley Community Foundation. Within hours of the evacuation, she helped direct resources and track down organizations and churches that opened doors to evacuees. In all, the foundation collected more than $20,000 in a matter of days, with every penny deployed to shelters, community agencies, and to the Salvation Army to fund thousands of meals.

“During times of crisis and uncertainty, the true character of a community is tested. We had no doubt the response would be unified and unwavering, but the level of love and compassion we witnessed was truly overwhelming. Hundreds of people throughout our community responded by volunteering their time and resources to ensure those affected were cared for. We are a strong and unified people, a crisis doesn’t create this, it reveals it.”

David Little

David LittleDavid Little (BA, English, ’85) is the editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record and the Oroville Mercury-Register, and has built a 38-year career in journalism. He and his staff, which include 17 Chico State alumni within the news-gathering operation, provided around-the-clock coverage of the events leading up to, during, and after the evacuation.

“We knew from the start this was the biggest story of the year. For some of our younger reporters, it’s the biggest story they’ve ever covered. And we’ve been hitting it from all angles, up to 12 stories a day on some days. It’s always odd when the national media parachutes in to cover something in your backyard. There was some great reporting by those outlets. There were also some inaccuracies because they were unfamiliar with the geography or the exact situation. I don’t recall ever receiving this many compliments for coverage. It’s gratifying to know people appreciated that effort—and the effort was immense. Days, nights, weekends—people pitched in wherever needed to tell this story. And we’re going to continue to tell it. This story will have legs for years.”

Katy Meline

Katy MelineKaty (Sweeny) Meline (BA, Journalism, ’09) is a correctional deputy for the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, and on February 12, she helped evacuate the jail of nearly 600 inmates. With her K-9 partner, Fido, in tow, she drove a single-cell female inmate to the Santa Rita Jail.

“It was heartwarming to see correctional deputy after correctional deputy arrive at the jail to help. I don't know how they were able to pry their family members off of them and drive into the flood evacuation zone, but I'm sure glad they did. The inmates were on edge and I was worried, too. My courageous and capable coworkers made it possible to evacuate the jail without injuries to any deputies or inmates.”

Alyssa Stutz Alyssa Stutz (BS, Civil Engineering, ’10) has been a civil engineer with the Department of Water Resources (DWR) since September 2011. She was working in the moments leading up to the decision to evacuate, and during its execution and aftermath. Also an Oroville resident, she said living with the evacuation orders looming left her with a feeling of “riding on a roller coaster—with my eyes closed.”

“As soon as things start to settle down, they change, and in ways I never see coming. I’ve seen the genius of maintenance workers as they rigged a system to keep the Hyatt Powerplant from flooding. I’ve gotten a glimpse of what it takes to orchestrate an incident of this magnitude—from the massive things like armoring a hillside to things like providing meals and lodging and timekeeping. I’ve seen how people have dealt with the frustrations of bureaucracy, being away from their families, and putting in long hours with no end in sight. I’ve seen people in a community come together and bring grocery bags full of food to show their appreciation.”

Alyssa Stutz

Alyssa StutzAlyssa Stutz (BS, Civil Engineering, ’10) has been a civil engineer with the Department of Water Resources (DWR) since September 2011. She was working in the moments leading up to the decision to evacuate, and during its execution and aftermath. Also an Oroville resident, she said living with the evacuation orders looming left her with a feeling of “riding on a roller coaster—with my eyes closed.

“As soon as things start to settle down, they change, and in ways I never see coming. I’ve seen the genius of maintenance workers as they rigged a system to keep the Hyatt Powerplant from flooding. I’ve gotten a glimpse of what it takes to orchestrate an incident of this magnitude—from the massive things like armoring a hillside to things like providing meals and lodging and timekeeping. I’ve seen how people have dealt with the frustrations of bureaucracy, being away from their families, and putting in long hours with no end in sight. I’ve seen people in a community come together and bring grocery bags full of food to show their appreciation.”

Barry Biermann

Barry BiermannBarry Biermann (BA, Communication Studies, ’91) works for Cal Fire as the Napa County fire chief. He’s also the deputy incident commander for Cal Fire Incident Management Team 3, which was activated on February 9 to support DWR and to mitigate issues related to the failure of the primary spillway.

“Cal Fire and DWR entered into a unified command structure that also included the Butte County Sheriff. As incident commanders, we were responsible for the overall safe management of the incident, which included developing strategies and alternatives and implementing plans with large resource-ordering with close coordination. Press updates, feeding workers, and paying all bills were just a few more of the continued workloads. After 16 days, the immediate threat of a disaster was mitigated, and Cal Fire was released.

Faculty Expertise

Chico State faculty boast a wide range of expertise and experience related to dam infrastructure, as well as geology’s role in engineering. They were called upon numerous times to give insight to local and national media, and a few were afforded the opportunity to take a frontlines look at the devastation.

Todd Greene

Todd Greene

Todd Greene is an associate professor in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences and the director of the University’s Center for Water and the Environment. In March 2017, he participated in a public panel, “Reflections on Oroville Dam,” an effort to educate community members on how dams are built and which key factors influence decision making.

“From a geologic perspective, the incident puts geology and geologic processes at the forefront of future planning strategies. As everyone saw the striking images of the powerful flows cascading down both spillways, it became pretty clear that it’s critical to understand the characteristics of the rock types and sediment cover at the dam site, as well as how they respond to extreme erosive forces. Now that the bedrock has been “liberated” from the suffocating sediment cover, this gives geologists a chance to better understand these rocks and their distribution around the dam and both spillways.”

Steffen Mehl

Steffen MehlSteffen Mehl is the chair of the Department of Civil Engineering. He boasts a strong background in hydraulics and hydrology, and routinely teaches courses in fluid mechanics, hydrology, and hydraulics. He continues to field media questions on the potential causes of the spillway failure and its reconstruction.

“Because the spillway has performed well in the past—the 1997 event had outflows that were well over 100,000 cubic feet per second and the spillway showed no problems—it seems to point to a maintenance issue. From an engineering point of view, it shows that a good design can be rendered inadequate if it is not maintained. After they investigate and determine the root cause of the problem, they will likely rebuild the spillway, retrofitting as necessary if they found design flaws. I think another interesting question is what are they going to do with the emergency spillway? I’m wondering if they will build a second spillway with gates so they have two options for controlled releases. If they leave it as a free-flowing overflow, certainly there will be more erosion control measures put into place.”

Russell Shapiro

Russell Shapiro

Russell Shapiro is chair of the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Chico State. He has been consulted on the erosion around the failed spillway as it revealed amazing sights, such as rock formations that are hundreds of millions of years old.

“The bedrock beneath the spillway is metamorphosed volcanic rocks, about 140 million years old. During the heating and pressure, some minerals were destroyed and new minerals were formed. Of concern is the mineral actinolite, which is one of the potentially harmful asbestos minerals. However, just because the mineral is in the rock doesn’t mean there is a health risk, as other factors are important. Robert Creeley, who mapped the area in the late 1940s and early 1950s, noted the actinolite, so this isn’t something new. With regards to the structural integrity of the bedrock, generally speaking, metamorphic rocks such as these tend to form solid foundations. There are some ancient fractures but engineers know how to work around these weaknesses.”


—Sean Murphy (BA, English, ’97) is the public affairs coordinator at Chico State. Sports Information Director Luke Reid contributed to this report.

Chris Kaufman (Attended, Journalism, ’92–’97) took the story's opening photo while working as photo editor of the Appeal-Democrat during the newspaper’s evacuation coverage.

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Alum Notes



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