Storm costs mount; ice in County still a threat

Posted April 09, 2009, at 10:05 p.m.

NORTHPORT, Maine — April may indeed turn out to be the cruelest month for both the roads and residents of this town of about 1,600 people.

Its roads, like many throughout Waldo and Knox counties, had major damage in Monday night’s rainstorm, and the town administrator estimates it will take between $100,000 and $150,000 to make needed repairs.

The problem? That is almost as much money as the town has budgeted for roads for the next 17 months, and unless the federal government declares Maine to be a disaster area after the storm, residents will need to pay for the work themselves.

“We have a limited budget for road work, like any town does,” Northport Town Administrator Jack Driscoll said Thursday. “We are concerned.”

Meanwhile, flood warnings continued Thursday in northern Maine, where water levels on the Aroostook River in Masardis — at a bridge where the river converges with St. Croix Stream — peaked at 18.7 feet, surpassing last year’s record of 18.3 feet, according to Mark Turner, a National Weather Service hydrologist based in Caribou.

A large ice jam that caused flooding in Masardis on Wednesday moved downstream to a bridge in neighboring Garfield Plantation.

“There’s still a big jam out there,” Turner said. At 8 p.m. the river level had dropped to about 17 feet in Masardis, still well above the 13-foot level that would be normal for the Aroostook River this time of year.

Disaster funds in question

Right now it is unclear whether Maine will qualify for federal disaster relief funds, which would require that repairs statewide cost at least $1.67 million, according to Maine Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Lynette Miller. If that threshold is reached, the governor declares a state of emergency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends a presidential declaration, it translates into big bucks.

The government reimburses towns for 90 percent of what they spend on repairs after a disaster, said Dale Rowley, director of the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency.

Rowley said early estimates from three Waldo County towns affected by the storm add up to about $250,000. He’s still waiting for more numbers to come in and said he’s not ruling out the possibility of the state reaching the disaster threshold. Rowley remembered other storms that initially looked as if damage would never add up to the $1.67 million threshold, which is set by multiplying the state’s population by $1.31.

“At this point in time, it’s a coin flip,” Rowley said.

But Ray Sisk, his counterpart in Knox County, was doubtful that federal funds would ever start flowing after this particular storm, which dumped 3½ inches of rain on the coast in just a few hours.

“The numbers don’t look at this time like they’re going to support that,” Sisk said.

Sisk estimated that Knox County towns will have to pay between $300,000 and $400,000 to repair their broken roads, culverts and damaged bridges. Town workers have been busy making both permanent and temporary repairs, and crews from the Maine Department of Transportation also have been working hard to fix state roads, such as the badly damaged Route 105 in Appleton.

“Think of it in terms of your own personal car. If you don’t have insurance, it’s out-of-pocket,” Sisk said. “For local roads and town roads, towns have to absorb the costs of repairs. That can be pretty bad.”

David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, said the state government will exercise “due diligence” to make sure communities get any available help.

“These events happen every year, and they can be costly,” Farmer said. “It’s our hope that we won’t see anything worse than we’ve already seen, and we’re grateful that we haven’t had a loss of life. Bottom line — you can rebuild roads, you can dry out homes, but you can’t bring somebody back.”

That’s the good news. But the bad news, Driscoll said, is that already tapped-out taxpayers will have to find emergency road repair funds to fix the erosion and other types of damage.

“We’d be forced to hold a special town meeting in the future and ask the town for additional funds,” he said. “To do that … would be a real burden on Northport taxpayers.”

Driscoll said that finding enough money for road repairs is a worry, and not just because of the storm — which also has caused Northport to compete with neighboring communities such as Lincolnville for necessities such as contractors and gravel. He’s also thinking about the possible excise tax decrease.

“We’re concerned about revenue sources for road maintenance,” Driscoll said.

Ice jams in The County

A large ice jam on the Aroostook River at Masardis forced the closure Wednesday of Route 11 and the evacuation of about half a dozen households in a low-lying spot.

“The water has receded from the road and those houses, but things are still up in the air,” Turner said Thursday afternoon. “If that jam re-forms, the [water level] could go back up.”

Arroll Rideout, regional superintendent of operations for the state Department of Transportation, said Route 11 was reopened Thursday afternoon.

Route 164, however, remained closed in Crouseville, where another ice jam caused the Aroostook River to back up just south of Rum Rapids. Rideout did not expect the road to reopen until today at the earliest.

If the ice jam at Garfield Plantation were to break up quickly and water to rush downriver to Crouseville, however, it could cause the already high waters there to rise dramatically, according to senior forecaster Joseph Hewitt of the National Weather Service.

Mark Belserene, director of the operations division for MEMA, warned motorists to abide by barricades on flooded roadways, such as the one in Crouseville. He said some people are still trying to drive around barricades and he warned that the pavement beneath could have been badly eroded by floodwaters.

Downriver, the section of the Aroostook just above the dam in Caribou began to clear up late Wednesday night, when a large sheet of solid ice broke up and caused minor flooding before moving through Fort Fairfield about 6 a.m. Thursday, Turner said.

Because that span of river is open, the ice upriver at Masardis and Crouseville should move through relatively easily, he said. He cautioned, however, that “ice is so unpredictable, there’s always a chance that could change.”

On the St. John River, no major flooding was reported as of Thursday night despite a stubborn ice jam stretching from Grand Isle to Van Buren, according to Hewitt.

Some of the farmland that lies between the river and U.S. Route 1 was flooded, Hewitt said. Though the St. John rose to the point where it came within a foot of the roadway in some spots, no road closures were reported.

“Everything else on the St. John seems to be free of ice at this point,” Turner said.

Turner also said an ice jam at Henderson Bridge on the Allagash River let go Wednesday without causing any flooding.

Late Thursday afternoon, the National Weather Service said “ice remains grounded on the west branch of the Mattawamkeag River in Island Falls” and that the town “is still under the threat of ice jam flooding.”

In the Washington County town of Pembroke, meanwhile, East River Road behind the Crossroads Motel and Restaurant was flooded from the Pennamaquan River and closed to traffic. The fire chief was concerned that emergency vehicles would have to travel five miles out of their way to reach residents on the other side of the river if needed.

The flooding affected several miles, and left some buildings sitting with water all around them.

Pembroke resident Barbara Pulk said Thursday she has lived in the area for more than 35 years and has never seen the river so high. “I’ve never seen it that bad,” she said as she stood near the bridge. “I couldn’t believe it at all.”

The weather service said a flood warning remained in effect until 9:15 a.m. today for Aroostook County, north central Penobscot County, and northeastern Piscataquis County.

Turner said the NWS would reassess the situation today, but that relatively dry weather and cold nights for the next several days should prevent river conditions from worsening.

BDN writer Diana Graettinger contributed to this report.

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