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About 188,000 residents near Oroville, Calif. were ordered to evacuate Sunday after a hole in an emergency spillway in the Oroville Dam threatened to flood the surrounding area. Thousands clogged highways leading out of the area headed south, north and west and arteries major and minor remained jammed as midnight approached on the West Coast.

Even as they fled, however, the flow of water over the spillway halted late in the evening, stabilizing the crisis. But officials warned the damaged infrastructure could create further dangers as storms approach in the week ahead and it remained unclear when residents might be able to return to their homes.

Lake Oroville is one of California’s largest man-made lakes with 3.5 million acre-feet of water and 167 miles of shoreline, and the 770-foot-tall Oroville Dam is the nation’s tallest, about 44 feet higher than Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. The lake is the linchpin of California’s government-run water delivery system, sending water from the Sierra Nevada for agriculture in the Central Valley and for residents and businesses in Southern California.

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On Sunday, state and local officials monitoring Oroville Dam, built in 1968, could see that the emergency spillway was eroding and in danger of collapsing. Failure would cause a surge that could inundate Marysville and Yuba City.

Honea sounded the alarm, telling people downstream of Oroville Dam to evacuate.

“This (is) NOT A Drill. This (is) NOT A Drill. This (is) NOT A Drill,” Honea said.

We may think we tame nature. We kid ourselves. An earthquake can strike at any time, liquefying seemingly solid ground, lifting entire buildings off their foundations, and fracturing bridges. Parts of Malibu can slide into the Pacific in one rainy season. A few months later, fire can destroy entire communities in the Sierra foothills.

The current situation cannot be attributed to climate change alone. Scientists say no single event can be laid at the feet of global warming. But they also say climate change leads to extreme weather patterns. And California certainly is experiencing extremes. California is ending five years of drought, and now is experiencing one of the wettest rainy seasons on record.

We live in a valley that 100 years ago flooded regularly. We have built huge dams and reclaimed and re-engineered the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta into an unnatural system of channels. The good people of Sacramento have taxed themselves, spending $2 billion on levees for flood control. Californians have been doing their part.

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More than 180,000 people in northern California have been told to evacuate their homes after both overflow channels at the tallest dam in the US were found to be damaged.

The emergency spillway of the 770ft (230m) tall Oroville Dam was close to collapse, officials said.

The excess water has now stopped flowing.

However, late on Sunday, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the evacuation orders remained in place.

Water levels in the reservoir have risen following heavy rain and snow after years of severe drought.

It is the first time that Lake Oroville, which lies 65 miles (105km) north of Sacramento, has experienced such an emergency in the dam's near 50-year history.

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