April showers bring a flood of trouble

Posted April 06, 2009, at 8:55 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:23 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Heavy rain and swollen streams flooded and washed out roads along midcoast Maine on Monday night into Tuesday, forcing schools to close and causing a number of accidents.

Police in Belfast rescued three women and a baby trapped in their van when it stalled in waist-deep water, and Camden rescuers pulled two middle-school-age girls from a flooded culvert.

As much as 4 inches of rain fell in the coastal Waldo-Knox county area overnight, damaging scores of roads in communities from Camden to Searsmont. And though the rain stopped falling by daylight, reports of flooding continued into the afternoon.

“The rain may have happened 12 hours ago but it’s [runoff] still coming down the hills,” Waldo County Emergency Management Agency Director Dale Rowley said Tuesday afternoon. “In many cases the flooding is just starting.”

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Rowley received reports of 25 roads in Waldo County that had serious damage from flooding or washouts. He said he expected many more reports as local road commissioners tally up the damage in the next few days. There were so many roads washed out in Belfast that the police and public works department ordered the schools closed.

“The police came to me and said to stop the buses,” SAD 34 transportation director Mitch Brown said. “That was at 6:15 [Tuesday] morning. At that time half the roads were impassable. I sure hope they’re ready by tomorrow. I don’t want to be going to school until August.”

There were school closures and widespread road damage in Knox County, where emergency crews worked overnight and into Tuesday to sandbag dams, repair roads and monitor rising water levels.

Camden emergency crews rescued two middle-school-age girls who were trapped Tuesday afternoon in a flooded culvert below Chestnut Street.

“I don’t mean to be dramatic, but that water has got to be cold enough that it would have been fatal,” said Police Chief Philip Roberts.

Police received a call at about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday saying some kids were playing in the culvert. When Roberts went to check it out, he heard screams.

“I didn’t know if they were playing screams or panicky screams,” he said.

Another girl who hadn’t descended very deeply into the culvert came up on her own, he said, but two had been swept into the culvert by the force of the water. The current carried them all the way across and under the road and into a catch basin.

The girls were able to keep their heads above water and scream for help through a storm drain cover overhead.

Roberts called the Fire Department to assist, and crews took up the storm drain cover and lowered a ladder 12 or 13 feet below the road surface.

“We got them up, uninjured but cold,” Roberts said.

The girls were bundled into an ambulance and their parents came to get them. The chief said the girls explained that one of them had lost a boot in the culvert.

“One has since been in here to say thank you and apologize,” Roberts said.

By 11 p.m. Monday in Belfast, the drainage system on the city’s Route 1 bypass could no longer handle the influx of runoff and spilled over onto the highway below the High Street overpass.

The rushing water was waist-deep when a northbound van carrying three women and a 1-year-old child hit the wall of water and slammed into the guardrail. Police Officer Rick Smith said the water pressure was so strong that the women were unable to open the van’s doors.

“I waded over, got the doors open and took the baby to one of the firefighters’ cars about 200 feet away on dry road,” Smith said. “The water was really coming. When I started out it was knee-high, but by the time I got to the van it was waist-high.”

At that point Maine State Police Sgt. Tom Ballard arrived and the two officers formed a chain to remove the women from the vehicle. Ballard would walk one about halfway to Smith, who then walked her to the ambulance. The women and baby were taken to Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast for treatment. The entire rescue took about an hour, he said.

“I never did get their names,” Smith said.

Traffic was rerouted around Route 1 for six hours, Smith said. The stalled van was removed by a tow truck at 5 a.m. Tuesday.

About an hour and a half later on Muzzy Ridge Road in Searsmont, Sabrina L. Rashard, 30, of Liberty drove her 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier around a barricade warning of a washout and ended up nose-first in a 4-foot-deep hole in the center of the road. Searsmont rescue took Rashard by ambulance to WCGH after she complained of chest and leg pain, according to Waldo County Deputy Sheriff Gene Rega.

Belfast Public Works director Robert Richards said he was out all night putting up barricades. He said flooding was extensive throughout the city and that a number of the outlying roads had been undercut by water rushing along the shoulders or simply washed out. He said crews from the Belfast Water District and Faulkingham Inc. were called in to assist.

“It was just that we had so much rain in a hurry that the storm drains and culverts couldn’t handle it,” Richards said.

EMA director Rowley estimated that the county would easily surpass the damage threshold to be eligible for federal disaster aid. Rowley said roads were out in Lincolnville, Searsmont, Northport, Islesboro, Monroe, Brooks, Swanville and Waldo.

Joy Leach of Gov. John Baldacci’s office said Tuesday afternoon that the governor was likely to visit the midcoast today to view the damage firsthand.

Rowley said the need was so great that Kennebec County provided extra barricades. Rowley cautioned that people needed to be aware that water moving across roads was dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.

The mind-set in a disaster is, “It can’t happen to me,” Rowley said. “The thing is, water doesn’t have to be that deep. Six inches of moving water can push a car.

In Camden, dam control agent Ken Bailey was using a yardstick at East Dam on Tuesday afternoon to measure how fast the water was rising and how long before the water could flow over the dam.

“The worst-case scenario: If the dam were to collapse, and a sudden surge of water went downstream like a minitsunami — well, you have to prepare for the worst,” Bailey said. “It could send a wall of water into downtown Camden.”

That kind of flooding was neither imminent nor likely, Bailey said, but he intended to continue monitoring the levels. Altogether, six dams control Lake Megunticook, and the East Dam is one surrounded by sandbags filled and placed by firefighters early Monday morning.

“It’s been a little wild,” Bailey said. “We hit the jackpot in this part of the state between melting snow, Friday’s rain and this rain. So far we’ve been lucky, but the lake is still rising.”

At East Dam on Lake Megunticook, Bailey said Tuesday afternoon that even though the storm had ended by about 1:30 a.m., the water levels were still rising, leading to the possibility of flooding.

Roads closed in the area included Route 105 in Appleton due to flooding, Route 52 in Camden because of a mud slide, and Barnstown Road in Hope due to a washout.

One woman driving down Route 105 in Appleton about 2 a.m. Tuesday hit a patch of deep water and called for help. The Appleton Fire Department assisted her but there was no accident, Chief Dave Stone said.

“She was scared, but she was OK,” he said. “We led her through and she was fine.”

Superintendents from SAD 28-Five Town Community School District and Union 69 decided early Tuesday morning to cancel school because of the heavily damaged roads.

Nancy Syme, whose driveway on Howe Road in Camden was washed out overnight by flooding, watched as men from the Camden Department of Public Works helped a heavy milk truck navigate around the holes and gullies caused by the storm.

“We’ve lived here for 40 years,” she said. “We’ve had water in our cellar from time to time, but nothing like this.”

There were reports of washouts on several roads in Penobscot in Hancock County, closing some of them for part of the day Tuesday.

The St. Croix River, which forms the boundary between Washington County and New Brunswick, was listed by the National Weather Service as a potential flood concern before the rain started Monday, but no problems were reported there Tuesday.

BDN writers Abigail Curtis in Camden, Walter Griffin in Belfast, Rich Hewitt in Ellsworth and Diana Graettinger in Calais contributed to this report.

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