FORT KENT, Maine — Early this month, David Soucy woke from a sound sleep in the pre-dawn hours, certain he heard his basement sump pump running.
The Fort Kent lawyer checked the pump — which was off — and found his cellar perfectly dry.
Several hundred yards to the north, however, the St. John River was peaking at 19 feet, well below the flood stage of a year ago when the Soucy family and dozens of other families and businesses along East and West Main streets were forced to evacuate as rapidly rising waters of the Fish and St. John rivers converged and flooded a mile-long section of town.
The aftermath of that April 30, 2008, disaster in northern Maine is still felt in many ways, from planning for future floods to ongoing cleanup and repair projects.
Remapping the flood plain
Last week, municipal leaders here met with representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in a public hearing outlining federal plans to remap Fort Kent’s flood plains and elevations in the wake of last year’s disaster.
“This could potentially have some significant impacts on flood insurance and preparedness,” Don Guimond, Fort Kent town manager, said. “It is conceivable people who are now living in a flood plain may not be or vice versa.”
For federal flood insurance purposes, a flood plain is any area at risk of seasonal flooding over a determined area and elevation.
New technologies and mapping systems, Guimond said, will allow FEMA’s contracted engineers to fine-tune Fort Kent’s 30-year-old flood plain maps to give them significantly greater topographic detail.
Current maps, Guimond said, are contoured in 20-foot increments. The new maps will show 2-foot increments.
According to the most recent 1984 FEMA-issued flood map, Fort Kent’s flood plain includes Dufour, Martin, Alfred, River and Church streets between East Main Street and the St. John River.
The mapping project will take at least two years, Guimond said, and when all is said and done, residents who are included in any expanded flood plain and who have up-to-date flood insurance will be grandfathered forever under those policies.
Normally residents in established flood plains do not qualify for flood insurance.
FEMA also plans to analyze flood data and models to determine the established flood elevations along the St. John River are accurate.
“This could have a major impact,” Guimond said. “If those elevations are raised, additional people could suddenly find themselves living in a flood plain.”
An increase in elevations also would require the town to evaluate the earthen dike between the West Main Street business district and the St. John River.
“If the elevations change, we’d have to make sure the dike meets those new standards,” Guimond said.
During last year’s flood the St. John River came within several inches of breaching the dike and flooding all of downtown Fort Kent.
The remapping project is entirely funded by FEMA, and engineers will begin flyovers of the area within the next 30 days, Guimond said.
Since the flood of 2008, Soucy, his neighbors and town officials have been cleaning up and preparing just in case another so-called 100-year flood decides to come early.
“We still have a lot of projects on our plate,” Guimond said. “Now that spring is coming, we can get back to a lot that didn’t get done because the construction season ended last fall.”
To date, most of that cleanup cost has been funded through state and federal grants, and Guimond fully expects more assistance to be on the way.
“We have several issues left to address,” Guimond said. “In spite of the flood life does go on, [and] regardless of other duties we all have, the cleanup has to take place and it just takes time.”
Because the town maintained the dike according to established specifications, Guimond said, the Army Corps of Engineers picked up the entire $300,000 to $400,000 tab to bring the earthen berm back to pre-flood condition.
Other grant-funded projects include:
— $850,000 in FEMA disaster funds for road and culvert repair and debris removal.
— Pairing another $829,000 from FEMA and the Maine Emergency Management Association with a $120,000 Community Development Block Grant for housing mitigation.
— Seeking up to $3.5 million from the federal rural development program and economic development association for repairs to the municipal water and waste-water treatment facilities.
— A second $1.5 million CDBG to replace the elderly housing facility destroyed by the flood.
Guimond said the housing mitigation funds would allow the town to acquire and demolish six or seven homes behind East Main Street that were extensively damaged in the flood and return the area to a more natural state.
“We expect closings to begin on some of those targeted properties in 30 to 60 days,” he said.
“The community response to the flood was tremendous,” Guimond said. “Municipal, emergency management [and] volunteers are what got us through it.”
Flood of ’08
The winter of 2008 brought record snowfall to the upper St. John Valley — more than 21 feet by the time winter officially came to an end.
In late April, 3 inches of rain came at the worst possible time and combined with the melting snowpack to raise the St. John River 8.1 feet in less than 24 hours on Wednesday, April 30, when it surged to 29.9 feet by that evening — well above the 25-foot flood stage.
Meanwhile, the Fish River, which was at 13.9 feet by Wednesday evening, crested at 14.6 feet by 2 a.m. Thursday. The previous record high for the Fish River was 12.4 feet in 1979. With the flood stage at 11 feet, water was running over the Fish River Bridge on Main Street by noon Wednesday, April 30.
In reaction, town, state and federal officials closed roads, shut down the international bridge between Maine and New Brunswick and evacuated nearly 600 people, including the residents of a senior citizens housing complex.
As the Fish River overran its western bank near where it joins the St. John River, water began flowing into the West Main Street business district, taking an unobstructed route behind an earth and rock dike that protects the district from the St. John.
Municipal Public Works crews and local volunteers helped create a berm to stem the flow, allowing several pumps to keep up with the water seeping through.
Over on East Main Street, the two rivers joined into one large body of moving water when the Fish River overran its banks across the road from the St. Louis Catholic Church and rushed into the St. John River.
With water pouring over a large part of East Main Street, a portion of West Main Street and down several residential roads, officials cast worried eyes to the three-decades-old earthen dike constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers specifically to protect downtown Fort Kent from the St. John River.
When the floodwaters receded with the Fish and St. John returning within their own banks by Sunday, May 4, they left behind tons of natural and man-made debris in their wake.
Aroostook County was declared a federal disaster area on May 9, 2008.
Responding during and in the days after the flood were municipal crews, FEMA, MEMA, Aroostook County Emergency Management, the Red Cross and The Salvation Army.
A flashpoint in that response was the hastily constructed dirt and gravel berm on the western end of the Fish River Bridge that kept the river from coursing down West Main Street.
“You had town trucks and trucks from different contractors all bringing in gravel and people kept coming offering more trucks,” Guimond said. “These are expensive rigs, and there they were backing them right into the water.”
Those efforts helped avert a major disaster on the western end of town, but residents along nearby Meadow Lane and Blockhouse Road found themselves with just about an hour’s warning to evacuate as the waters rose around them.
“The water came 3 inches shy of the first floor,” resident Connie Michaud said. “We had a window of an hour to get out, so I scrounged my pets and got out.”
An hour later, high water prevented Michaud from returning for her computer.
‘The old-timers always said it would happen’
Perhaps the hardest hit in town was the 200-year-old Catholic church which suddenly found itself in the combined waters of the St. John and Fish rivers, causing more than $3 million in damage.
Cleanup began immediately and a majority of the work was done in time for the congregation to celebrate Christmas Eve Mass in the church.
“One thing we have said is there is good that can come of tragedy,” Father James Nadeau, said. “We’ve been working on a disaster preparedness plan, and now we are ready if it happens again.”
One street over at the Soucy house, the home cleanup continues.
“Another weekend or so and we should have it done,” Soucy said.
The National Weather Service said the risk of flooding this week was not great despite midweek precipitation, though there are no guarantees.
Two houses down, the cleanup from last year’s flood also is still under way at Sue Roy’s home where she lives with her husband, James Ouellette, and granddaughter Cameron.
Unlike their neighbors, the family opted to stay in their East Main Street home. The river surrounded the house, but miraculously stopped an inch short of the first floor.
“I took the motor off the basement furnace and disconnected all but one electric circuit,” Ouellette said. “We had television and coffee, and heat from the wood stove.”
When the Fish River rushed over East Main Street, Roy said, it did not take her totally by surprise.
“My father always said it would happen,” she said. “The old-timers always said it would happen because at some point the town filled in and diverted that river. It was bound to try to follow its old path.”
It’s taken Ouellette and Roy nearly a year, but they are starting to get on top of the cleanup.
During the early days of the flood and subsequent recovery operations, Roy said organizations such as the Red Cross and The Salvation Army were godsends.
“They kept us in drinking water and food,” Roy said.
For everyone who personally experienced the flood of 2008, this time of year is particularly nerve-racking.
Michaud’s computer remains on the river-level Web page most of the day so she can monitor it at all times.
The first thing Soucy did after waking to the phantom sounds of a sump pump was to instantly log on to his computer and check the latest river level statistics.
“As a community we always monitor the river,” Guimond said. “But now I think any complacency we had about flooding is gone — and that’s not a bad thing.”