March 17, 2010

A FLOOD FOR THE AGES

— From staff and news services

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... The St. John River is flowing almost over the top of the international bridge between Fort Kent and Canada. Aerial photos of Fort Kent flooding taken on Wednesday, April 30, 2008.

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Aerial photos of Fort Kent flooding taken on Wednesday, April 30, 2008.

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FORT KENT — Authorities evacuated scores of homes and businesses Wednesday as rising floodwaters spilled into downtowns and threatened dams and bridges in northern Maine.

Scientists called the event a 100-year flood for the St. John River. It was caused by driving rain and the melting of the heaviest snow accumulations in memory.

More than 3 inches of rain sent the St. John to more than 5 feet above flood stage Wednesday night. Much of downtown Fort Kent was under water by early afternoon.

Authorities expected water to spill over a dike along the river, which runs between Maine and New Brunswick, before it crested at 2 a.m. today.

''We're evacuating all the main streets, going to all the businesses and telling them to close up for safety,'' said Fort Kent Police Chief Kenneth Michaud.

Floods also forced evacuations downriver in Van Buren and in the Penobscot County town of Mattawamkeag, where the Penobscot and Mattawamkeag rivers spilled over their banks.

State officials said 600 northern Maine residents were displaced and 140 homes were swamped.

A half-dozen Washburn residents were ordered out of their homes after a culvert in an earthen dam between Salmon Brook and Mill Pond washed away, threatening a concrete dam downstream.

''I've never seen it like this,'' said Ryan Goodine, a firefighter who was one of the six residents who were forced to leave their homes on Wednesday.

Goodine has lived in the small town west of Caribou for 30 years.

Wardens said the Mill Pond dam had cracked by mid-afternoon, and the National Weather Service issued flash flood warnings for the town.

The Mill Pond dam holds back about 12 feet of water, spread out over about 20 acres, firefighters said.

''If this lets go, we would have an issue or two,'' said Mike Matowitz of the Washburn Fire Department.

Local officials started watching the St. John River in Fort Kent last week, when rising waters caused concern on the Canadian side.

Those waters had been receding until the deluge of rain this week, said Joseph Hewitt of the National Weather Service.

There was still a half-foot of snow on the ground after a winter that dumped around 200 inches of snow in the region, and that melting snow exacerbated the situation.

''In response to that, a lot of these rivers took off,'' Hewitt said.

He said it was the worst flooding ever seen in Fort Kent, a town of 4,200 residents.

Meteorologists expected the river to crest overnight at just under 31 feet -- nearly 6 feet above flood stage and almost 4 feet higher than the 1979 record.

Authorities focused their attention on the International Bridge, between Fort Kent and New Brunswick, which would stand only slightly above water level if the forecast held true.

The river measured between 27 and 30 feet through much of Wednesday, gradually rising as the day wore on. It topped 30 feet around 8 p.m.

''Another couple of feet really won't make a difference -- they're already suffering up there,'' said LeeAnn Allegretto of the weather service. ''The main concern is the bridge.''

The Maine Emergency Management Agency activated its 24-hour operations center in Augusta and Gov. John Baldacci, who requested federal disaster assistance for Aroostook County, toured the affected region by helicopter.

Dozens sought refuge at an emergency shelter at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, which opened as police evacuated homes in the morning.

The displaced included Patricia Sherman, who for the past several days has watched the St. John River rise from her second-floor apartment on West Main Street.

Sherman had a police scanner on in her apartment overnight, and said she could hear the concern in the voices of police officers and dispatchers. At 3:15 a.m., she heard that the bridge was being shut down.

''We figured we were safe because there was no water in front of our house,'' Sherman said, so she and her longtime boyfriend, Charles Stewart, tried to get some sleep.

After dawn, she stepped out onto her deck.

''I started getting nervous when the trees were flowing under the bridge and I could hear the pop, pop, pop of the branches breaking off,'' said Sherman, who has lived in town for more than 20 years.

She and Stewart were at the shelter by late morning.

Scientists described the flooding along the St. John as ''greater than a 100-year event'' during a conference call with emergency management officials, said the agency's spokeswoman, Lynette Miller.

Wardens, police and firefighters rescued several Aroostook County residents who found themselves trapped as floodwaters rose quickly in the morning.

Wardens Chad Abbott and Brad Richard moved a couple in Wallagrass by having them climb into the bucket of a tractor so they could be carried away from their flooded home at Soldier Pond.

Willis and Cecilia Stadig were taken to safety without incident, said Deb Turcotte, a spokeswoman for the Maine Warden Service.

There were no reports of deaths or major injuries, and rescuers with a Coast Guard helicopter team expected a night of relative calm.

''Hopefully, it will be a quiet night,'' Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell said of the flooded areas.

Staff Writers Elbert Aull, Trevor Maxwell and the Associated Press contributed to this report

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Additional Photos

Pauline Branston
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Pauline Branston

AP

  


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