FORT KENT, Maine — As the two-year anniversary of almost record-breaking spring flooding nears, the federal agency tasked with helping the affected area has released a study aimed at preparing for the next big flood.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency earlier this month released “Living Behind the Levee, Fort Kent, Maine: Knowing the Threat, Anticipating the Vulnerability” to the Town Council.
“As a result of [Hurricane] Katrina, FEMA noticed it needs to do more beyond a disaster to help communities get back on their feet,” said John Bannen, Fort Kent director of planning and economic development. “FEMA has looked at us and said we are at risk for a future flood, and we need to plan.”
The 100-page report, according to Bannen, covers what led up to the April 2008 flood, available resources and how to mitigate future flood risks.
In late April that year, 3 inches of rain came at the worst possible time and combined with melting snow to raise the St. John River 8.1 feet in less than 24 hours. By the evening of Wednesday, April 30, the river surged to 29.9 feet, 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, reached in 1979. With the flood stage at 11 feet, water was running over the Fish River Bridge on Main Street by noon Wednesday.
In reaction, town, state and federal officials closed roads, shut down the international bridge between Maine and New Brunswick and evacuated close to 600 people, including 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 to 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 3-decade-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 and the Fish and St. John returned to within their banks, left in their wake were tons of natural and man-made debris.
Responding during and in the days after the flood were municipal crews, FEMA, Maine Emergency Management Agency, Aroostook County Emergency Management, the Red Cross and The Salvation Army.
As bad as the damage was, Bannen said, it could have been far worse had the waters overrun the dike and flooded the downtown business district.
“We were lucky that time,” he said. “We may not be so lucky next time.”
According to the FEMA report, there will be a next time.
“Whether you agree with climate change or not, FEMA has reported weather-related events are getting more extensive over the years,” Bannen said. “What we saw in 2008 was a 100-year, or 1 percent flood.”
FEMA officials have reported that the upper St. John Valley could see a 500-year flood if certain climatological conditions occur.
Heavy spring rains, rapidly melting snow and a saturated snowpack could combine to create disastrous flooding.
“Part of Fort Kent’s comprehensive plan update will include hazard mitigation for flooding,” Bannen said. “This report will serve as a starting point for those discussions.”
Town-initiated events before 2008 — including relocating the municipal garage and sewage treatment plant away from flood zones — helped reduce the flood’s effect.
“The sewage plant in Clair, New Brunswick, is still not operational after that flood,” Don Guimond, town manager, said this week. “Ours never missed a beat.”
To date, FEMA and related agencies have funneled just over $8 million in funding for flood mitigation and repairs stemming from the 2008 flood.
An elderly living complex is planned for a new location to replace units destroyed by the flood, eight structures within the existing flood plain were purchased and destroyed, and the banks along the Fish River at the confluence with the St. John were stabilized.
Since 1970 more than $20.6 million in federal funds have been used for mitigation projects, including relocation of an entire neighborhood from the St. John River flood plain on East Main Street in 1984.
In addition to the comprehensive plan update, the town also is undertaking a remapping of its flood plains thanks to data and technology supplied by FEMA.
As part of that project the Army Corps of Engineers will certify if the municipal levee meets or exceeds all safety standards.