65,000 cfs of water flows through a damaged spillway on the Oroville Dam in Oroville, California on Feb. 10, 2017.
65,000 cfs of water flows through a damaged spillway on the Oroville Dam in Oroville, Calif., on Feb. 10, 2017.Max Whittaker—Reuters
65,000 cfs of water flows through a damaged spillway on the Oroville Dam in Oroville, California on Feb. 10, 2017.
California State Park Rangers close the top of Oroville Dam after a hole was torn in the spillway while releasing water in advance of more rain on Feb. 7, 2017 in Oroville, California.
A hole was torn in the spillway of the Oroville Dam while releasing approximately 60,000 cubic-feet-second of water in advance of more rain in Oroville, California, on Feb. 7, 2017.
The Oroville reservoir level sits very close to the top of Oroville Dam in Oroville, California on Feb. 10, 2017.
The McCaskill family of Oroville waits for more pizza to arrive outside the evacuation center at the Butte County Fairgrounds in Chico, California on Feb. 12, 2017.
Donald Backovich, 15, of Oroville sleeps with his family at the evacuation center at the Butte County Fairgrounds in Chico, California on Feb.12, 2017.
Albert Morrison, Sr., and his 14-month-old son Albert, Jr. take a shower for the first time in three days at the evacuation center at the Butte County Fairgrounds in Chico, California on Feb. 15, 2017.
Oroville resident Georgia Villaflor checks news updates on her laptop with her dog Precious in her car outside the evacuation center at the Butte County Fairgrounds in Chico, California on Feb. 12, 2017.
Gridley resident Shari Mota, right, tries to get her children to go to sleep in the evacuation center at the Butte County Fairgrounds in Chico, California on Feb. 12, 2017.
From left, Oroville residents Robert King, Jerry Lee Huggins and Anna Gibson sleep outside the evacuation center at the Butte County Fairgrounds in Chico, California on Feb. 12, 2017.
Children's artwork hangs on a tree at the evacuation center at the Butte County Fairgrounds in Chico, California on Feb. 15, 2017.
65,000 cfs of water flows through a damaged spillway on the Oroville Dam in Oroville, Calif., on Feb. 10, 2017.
Max Whittaker—Reuters
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In Oroville, Everyone Is Watching the Weather

Feb 17, 2017

With three storms making their way across California, the state’s Department of Water Resources is racing against time, draining more than 100,000 cubic feet of water every second from Lake Oroville.

The reason why, at least for Sacramento-based photographer Max Whittaker, started in the early hours of Feb. 7. “The San Francisco Chronicle called and asked if I wanted to go up to Oroville to do a story on how California’s reservoirs are full,” he says. “I set out figuring that it would be a straightforward story.” When he arrived, however, authorities had blocked the road leading to the spillway. When he tried to go to the top of the dam itself to look for other angles, they blocked his way again. Perplexed — who would object to him taking a picture of the water? — he then overheard officials at a roadblock talking about “the incident.”

After a back and forth with his editor and the authorities on the scene, a representative from the California Department of Water Resources let him follow along to see what was happening. “We went close to the spillway and there was this huge hole in it," he recalls.

As he photographed the damage, the story was changing.

WEATHER0208_RESERVOIRSA hole was torn in the spillway of the Oroville Dam while releasing approximately 60,000 cubic-feet-second of water in advance of more rain on Feb. 7, 2017 in Oroville, Calif. Max Whittaker—Prime 

This was at the end of a very warm and wet storm that had hit northern California. “It was raining up to 9,000 feet [in altitude] when typically, in the winter, it would snow from 2,000 to 5,000 feet,” says Whittaker. “All this water was running down quickly to the lake, even melting existing snow so there was tremendous inflow.”

Authorities realized they wouldn’t be able to drain the water quickly enough to solve the problem, and an evacuation order was issued for 200,000 people living downstream from the Oroville Dam, including some of Whittaker’s friends and relatives.

“I saw people at the evacuation centers who literally brought nothing with them,” he says. “It was somewhat terrifying for people because the traffic jams were so massive and in areas that could be inundated if the dam had collapsed.” While people were orderly, there was still a stressful vibe hanging over everyone, says Whittaker. “But, as time went on [and the evacuation order was lifted], it’s been interesting to see the variety of emotions people have about it. Some felt they got evacuated for no reason, when others refused to return to their homes because the danger has not subsided.”

Now, everyone is watching the weather. The Department of Water Resources says the situation is under control if the forecast stands, Whittaker reports. But when it comes to something so dependent on the weather, the future is hard to predict.

“Another storm just started,” he says. “It’s raining steadily today."

Max Whittaker is a photographer based in Sacramento. He's represented by the Prime collective.

Kim Bubello, who edited this photo essay, is a freelance photo editor at TIME.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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