Maine flood season difficult to predict

Posted March 05, 2009, at 9:51 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In Maine, a state known for its weather extremes, people’s attention turns to three things in March: basketball tournaments, town meetings and spring flooding. And spring flood watch time officially started Thursday.

Maine’s River Flow Advisory Commission, composed of state and federal agencies from the fish and game department to the Coast Guard, held its initial meeting to talk about conditions that could affect flooding in the weeks ahead. Spring means flooding virtually every year in Maine, but how severe and widespread it turns out to be is always the question.

“Right now we look to be in pretty good shape,” Maine Emergency Management Agency Director Robert McAleer said after the meeting at MEMA headquarters. “But that’s a moving target.”

McAleer recalled last winter, a season of record snow accumulations in places such as Caribou, which got buried under 197.5 inches, and Portland, which got 103 inches.

Gradual warming conditions, with warm days and cool nights, and a lack of heavy rain kept the state free of major floods through most of the flood season.

But things can, and do, change quickly.

On May 1, heavy rains caused the St. John River to spill its banks, flooding Fort Kent and forcing the evacuation of more than 130 homes.

Alex Chasse, 15, of Fort Kent recalls his parents waking him up, telling him they were going to have to evacuate. A hastily made berm spared the house from the worst, but the basement flooded. “It just seemed to happen so quickly,” Chasse said.

This winter has been marked by similar or slightly better conditions than at the same time a year ago, officials were told Thursday.

Since the start of March, snow depth has ranged from 30 to 40 inches in most areas, with most of the ground dry and ready to soak up moisture.

River ice, which can create dams after it breaks up in the spring, is also a big factor. As of now, ice on the waterways is relatively thin, ranging from 2½ feet in some parts of northern Maine to less than a foot Down East and even less in the south.

The Coast Guard, meanwhile, is ready to get its icebreakers on the Kennebec later this month, said Chief Warrant Officer Jeffrey Chase.

The Penobscot is kept open to allow shipping from an industrial site along the river, and the Androscoggin is too shallow for icebreakers, said Chase.

Nothing in the forecast suggests imminent high water. The state will see temperatures warm up in the next few days, with some areas reaching the 40s.

“Right now, I don’t see any big rainfall, and I don’t see any big meltdown,” said Tom Hawley, hydrologist with the National Weather Service.

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