YUBA CITY (CBS13) — Shovels hit the dirt for the first time since 1955 along the Feather River as levee improvements began around Yuba City.

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It was the middle of the night on Christmas Eve nearly 60 years ago when a part of the levee gave way. Water measuring two stories high and hundreds of feet wide barreling toward farms and homes.

Francis Silva, who owned a farm along the Feather River, says he rushed home to save his wife and children.

“Had to go about 10 miles to get my house, so I was able to get my family out.”

But many did not survive. When it was all over, 38 people had died, and hundreds of animals perished or went missing.

“You can imagine everything that is in your house is completelygone. I mean completely gone,” said former Sutter County Supervisor Larry Montna.

The repairs were only to last a few years until something permanent could be done.

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“It was pumped back in there with sand and a temporary fix to get it closed,” Silva said. “It’s never been changes. That’s 50-some years ago.”

That sand is all that stood between the river and homes that sit along the levee.

Tractors are now moving dirt, preparing the first section of what will be 44 miles of levee improvements.

“Every time we had high water, we’ve had a problem here, so this will solve that,” Silva said.

The $312 million project will bring levees to national safety standards which means they will be able to withstand a catastrophic flood that takes place once every 100 years.

This groundbreaking was a day Francis wasn’t sure he’d ever witness.

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“It just finally came together. It took all that time. I never thought I’d live to see it.”