CHICO, Calif. (AP) — Some grabbed pets and important papers. Others arrived at shelters with just the clothes on their backs.
Still others couldn't leave at all Sunday when word came down that a damaged spillway at California's gigantic Oroville Dam might collapse and send a 30-foot wall of water rushing toward them.
"People were just panicking, honking and yelling at each other," Patrick Miner said.
He was trying to escape the small town of Live Oak in a four-car caravan with his wife, three sons, mother and stepfather when they learned the roads ahead were jammed with traffic. Low on gas, they decided to turn around and take their chances at home.
"I decided I'd rather be in the house and we can climb on the roof rather than be in the car if something happens," said Miner, a 38-year-old computer networking student.
He also feared that the tension he witnessed among those trying to get gas and leave town would boil over and turn dangerous. He said one neighbor with the same worry drove with a shotgun in his lap for protection.
"I just got nervous and decided to hunker down," he said. "It was pretty scary."
Others made it out of the danger zone 150 miles northeast of San Francisco and headed by the hundreds to shelters. They holed up there Monday, waiting to hear when it might be safe to go home.
Although the threat seemed to ease as the water level behind the dam fell, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said it might not be safe to return until repairs are done to the crumbling emergency spillway that carries excess water. No estimated time was given.
"I have the clothes on my back. No insurance policies, no cash, no nothing," said Warren Neufeld of Oroville, who was in the town of Chico when the evacuation order came down.
Unable to return home, he found refuge in a Red Cross shelter at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, where he spent the night assembling cots and handing out pizzas.
Ken Huskey sat on one of those cots Monday, smoking what he said was his first cigarette in 12 years.
"We had a rough night last night," he explained.
Red Cross shelter manager Pam Deditch said the fairgrounds was well-stocked with supplies but that some people left in such a rush that they left their medications behind.
Jodye Manley of Olivehurst was having dinner Sunday at her daughter's house in Sacramento when a city councilman tipped her that an evacuation order was coming.
She and her musician husband raced home in time to gather up their four dogs, three cats, his guitars and amplifiers, and their important papers, family photos and a few clothes. They stacked other valuables 4 feet off the floor and hoped for the best as they left.
"When we got to our trailer park, it was almost like a movie, like 'Independence Day,' and they were all running," said Manley, 57. "It was surreal to see and feel the panic because where we are situated, had that wall come down at all last night, it wouldn't have taken long to get to us."
Myers reported from Los Angeles.