Authorities lifted an evacuation order Tuesday for nearly 200,000 California residents who live below the nation's tallest dam after declaring that the risk of catastrophic collapse of a damaged spillway had been significantly reduced.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said residents can return home immediately. State water officials said they have drained enough of the lake behind Oroville Dam so that its earthen emergency spillway will not be needed to handle runoff from an approaching storm.
But, the sheriff said, the region would remain under an evacuation warning, meaning that residents need to be ready to flee again if conditions worsen.
Residents returning home "have to be vigilant," and "there is the prospect that we will issue another evacuation order ... if the situation changes," Honea noted.
Crews also dropped giant sandbags, cement blocks and boulders on damaged areas Tuesday.
President Donald Trump approved a major disaster declaration for the state on Tuesday, allowing California to receive funding for recovery efforts in areas affected by recent storms. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the president was keeping a "close eye" on the situation.
People staying at Neighborhood Church of Chico started packing immediately when Honea announced the evacuation order was lifted.
Margaret Johnston spent two nights at the church with her two sons. The 69-year-old Oroville resident had packed a few blankets, pillows and clothes into a black garbage bag.
Johnston said she's relieved to be able to go home. But she says the mad rush to get out of Oroville was chaotic and confusing, so she's going to wait a while before driving back.
Officials had ordered residents to flee to higher ground Sunday after fearing a never-before-used emergency spillway was close to failing and sending a 30-foot wall of water into communities downstream.
Over the weekend, the swollen lake spilled down the unpaved emergency spillway for nearly 40 hours, leaving it badly eroded. The problem occurred six days after engineers discovered a 200-foot-long, 20-foot-deep growing hole in the dam's main, concrete spillway.
Officials defended the decision to suddenly call for mass evacuations Sunday, just a few hours after saying the situation was stable, forcing families to rush to pack up and get out.
"There was a lot of traffic. It was chaos," said Robert Brabant, an Oroville resident who evacuated with his wife, son, dogs and cats. "It was a lot of accidents. It was like people weren't paying attention to other people."
In addition to evacuating residents, Butte County also moved approximately 500 inmates out of the affected area and into Alameda County Jail farther south, according to Weather.com.
Airbnb, the home rental service, has waived all fees for people who live in the affected area, and is offering homeowners a way to offer shelter for free, NBC News reported.