When the Levee Broke

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Then, I stuck it to the glass of the overhead projector and watched it kick helplessly. I turned on the light switch. Blood coursed through its veins, its heart pumping steadily.

“Whose blood is this?” I asked.

“I guess it’s mine,” the boy stated unhappily. “I think the lice are on everybody at our house, even my cousins and everyone else who had to get away from the flood.”

“Yes, “ I said. “When we’re all packed together, the insects and all sorts of vermin find us. We’re perfect hosts.”

It was not something they wanted to hear, but I knew once they saw the louse, they would redouble their efforts to keep clean even under the worst of circumstances. We would stick together and all of us would survive, but I was not sure of that at the beginning of this harrowing experience.

Some people were levee walkers. They were assigned to walk certain sections of levee where danger of breaks was highest, searching for boils. Boils were places where water would make it through the thick levee on the river side, and seep or gurgle out. The boils were most dangerous, for any erosion could quickly enlarge and cause the levee to collapse. The levee walkers would carry poles to prod and search for spongy ground, a tell-tell sign of a weakening levee.

The rest of us could do nothing but watch the rain fall and worry incessantly about the increasing pressure of the raging water. Forecasts of continuing rain created speculation about where the levees might break. Surprisingly, the rain stopped and without the impending threat of a levee break, the people of Marysville, Yuba City, Olivehurst, and Linda breathed easier and resumed their normal activities.

I was one of those waiting patiently as the rivers began to recede. But things were not as peaceful as they seemed. While things looked good on the surface of the levees the river had been quietly eating away at the base of the levee. The water was continuously eroding and scraping out chunks of sand and stone.

At 5 p.m., a section of levee gave way and water spewed through the growing gap. Shoppers at the busy Linda Mall were surprised to see water gushing past and around their cars. Diners at Pizza Hut watched in amazement when they glanced outside and saw shopping carts wash by. Within minutes, people were in full panic mode. Those who could, drove away. Those who could not get to their cars had to flee on foot, running for their lives.

The mall was built in a low lying area and water rushed downward from the widening break, filling the lowest levels. Store windows crashed as the weight of the water shoved onward, relentlessly tossing merchandise and mannequins from store to store, leaving the impression that bodies were floating everywhere. The indoor theater, previously crowded with people, was eerily quiet as firemen and rescue workers wearily searched for survivors.

I drove home slowly, weaving my way through the congestion of people who were confused and afraid, the curious onlookers, and those who were anxiously looking for friends and family. Behind me, the water still poured from the river, ever widening and deepening, chasing people from their homes. Some roads became impassable, and roadblocks were set up at higher points.

I waited at my house, sure that I was out of harm’s way. I could hear sirens in the distance and knew they were gradually moving in my direction. A few minutes later, a truck came down the street with an ominous announcement blaring, “You are under mandatory evacuation orders. Everyone has to leave now.”

My son and I had already managed to pack some clothes. We checked to see that everything was turned off in the house, then brought our clothes to the car and left.

Roads to the north, the west, and some to the south were flooded and impassable. The remaining roads were filled with terrified people, those who were driving in the direction they were told by announcements on the radio, those who were unprepared and wanting to remain, and those whose cars were stopped alongside the road because their cars lacked gas or had mechanical problems.

Some people were begging for rides while others were trying to take over any cars which stopped. My son and I weaved onward, past the volunteers who were mumbling directions and frustrated by the desperate people who would not heed directions. The majority, thirty thousand in number, were directed eastward into the foothills towards Beale AFB. Another group went southeast to the town of Wheatland. I took a little known country road south to Rio Oso, carefully watching for rising waters.

The group that went to Beale was wild and crazy, unable to follow the rules of the hospitable but prim and proper military group. There was an uneasy truce between the Camp Beale soldiers and unruly townspeople for three weeks until the displaced people were allowed back to their homes.

The group that went to Wheatland also left destruction in their wake. Some were sheltered in the Wheatland High School gymnasium and promptly began trashing the place as well as carving initials in the beautiful hardwood gym floor. In Rio Oso, I stayed with friends while other refugees stayed with their friends or kinfolk.

Cleanliness was a problem because septic tanks and sewage lines were overtaxed or sated with water. People wanted to take baths or showers but showers that worked were few and far between. Lice were rampant, and crowded conditions only made things worse. Everybody became concerned about malaria, encephalitis, and other diseases.

We worried about the other levees also, but they held long enough. We watched news coverage as reporters swarmed the area, some of them coming dangerously close to drowning as they covered the stories. One reporter ventured by boat near a gaping hole in the levee and later was seen hanging precariously on a sign post on Feather River Boulevard waiting for a boat to pick him up.

Gradually over a two week period, the flood waters receded. We were told we could go back to our houses. However, to the north, in the shallow basin where most people lived and where the mall was located, the stagnant water stayed. It had nowhere to go, trapped by the same levees that kept the original river waters out. It took a month before that section became safe and dry enough for people to return.

People began cleaning houses, stripping down moldy sheet rock, washing mud, silt, debris, and wastes from anything remaining. Originally, the tasks consisted of repairing or cleaning, but soon the task became one of rebuilding. The tainted water, heavy with minerals and sewage from the city sewage system, ruined everything it had touched. For months afterward, piles of carpets, furniture, and other debris remained, waiting to be hauled away.

In spite of all the destruction, in terms of life, the towns of Olivehurst and Linda were lucky. Out of the thousands who were evacuated, none died. Only two in the whole area, two who refused to leave, were claimed by the raging cold waters.

The memories of that flood remain. Those who lived by the northern California rivers watched the levees when rains came again, especially when the rain fell for days at a time. Residents knew that floods occurred about every twenty years and always turned a wary eye towards the levees and tried to be prepared. But new people moved in all the time, and the new people knew nothing about the past floods. They moved onto the flood plains in increasing numbers and new cities sprang up. According to past cycles of flooding, the rivers left their beds frequently. The new houses, proudly standing on once fertile agricultural land, challenged historical records and future predictions, daring the waters to come again.

Who would warn the newcomers or tell the veterans that sooner or later people would get caught by the sometimes raging waters? I moved from the area, away from the chance of those flood waters. But it did not matter where I looked or where I went, there was always a chance of some disaster, a place where people ignored the possibilities of things going wrong.

Because I was lucky enough to escape once, I determined I would always try to be ready for whatever disaster happened. I wanted to be like the Biblical story and be prepared should the bridegroom come. I do not want to be foolish and ignore the signs of the past.

By Dan Roberson

 In February, the rains were not torrential but steady and relentless. The previously dry earth dampened, and then became saturated. All of the rivers were rising, leaving their channels and slowly climbing the levees. The rising waters of the Sacramento River became a barrier to the Feather River and, in turn, its waters rose, causing the Yuba River to climb even higher.


I searched through his dark coarse hair and caught one of the dots scampering across his scalp. Picking it up gently between two fingers, I pressed it against the scotch tape where it squirmed but could not escape.

2 thoughts on “When the Levee Broke

  1. So quickly Dan, any catastrophe peels back the layers of civilisation, we humans are as nothing against floods, winds and the follow on trail of diseases.. Mother Nature can bring us to our knees within minutes. Your tale of destruction and what followed held me spellbound, many thanks for sharing your experience. xPenx

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