JULIA BAYLY

Rising waters bring flood of memories

Posted May 05, 2011, at 1:57 p.m.

This week’s heavy rains in northern Maine are causing river levels in the St. John Valley to rise near or above flood stages, threatening roads, cellars and businesses.

Twenty-nine years ago, scores of folks and I living in the flood plain between St. Louis Catholic Church and St. John Street on the banks of the St. John River were right in the middle of it and on flood alert.

For my late husband, his family and the rest of the neighborhood who had grown up keeping an eye on the river each May, it was all rather routine.

But for me, driving out in the morning to attend classes at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, only to return at midday to find the only way home was by canoe had me ready to start building the next Ark.

When the St. John River decides it’s going to flood, it doesn’t fool around. Water rises with impressive speed following the paths of least resistance around — and sometimes through — homes.

We were lucky in 1982, the last year we lived on the flood plain. Over several days of flooding the water got into several basements — but only came within an inch or two of the ground floor in many cases.

But there was no way anything was going to be left to chance.

Using canoes, fishing boats and four-wheel-drive trucks with high ground clearance, the residents of the neighborhood swung into action based on years of practice.

It’s an experience I will never forget.

From house to house they went, lugging cinder blocks and sawhorses out of basements and garages and taking them inside.

Once there, furniture, appliances and other household objects were carefully balanced on those blocks, giving them a good foot or two of clearance from the floor — just in case.

Electrical breakers were pulled, fuses removed and oil tanks secured, all in hope that if the water did come inside, it would leave — at worst — a muddy mess.

Once one home was prepared, a group of neighbors moved on to the next to lend a hand.

At the time there was an elderly housing complex set smack on the area’s lowest point, making it the most vulnerable to the rising waters. Residents of that complex were usually among the first to be evacuated before it was completely cut off.

When it was discovered that one resident had left his medications behind in his apartment there was no need to ask for volunteers to retrieve them.

In an instant two or three people were in their canoes and motoring through the swiftly moving floodwaters. Within minutes they were back and handing over the medications to a tearfully grateful senior citizen.

Those with small children or elderly relatives sought shelter with friends or family, but a bunch of us opted to stay in homes that had become mini-islands with no heat, no electricity and with canoes tied floating next to porches.

Needless to say, there was plenty of water.

There was no way to cook any food, but luckily a local convenience store was a short canoe ride up the road.

It’s amazing how long you can survive on steamed hot dogs, Snickers bars and cold beer.

For three days the neighborhood was a community afloat. I don’t think any of us slept, and I remember my husband getting up every hour on the hour to check the water depth in the cellar where all of our once neatly stacked firewood was now bobbing around like toy boats.

I also remember the somewhat frightening sounds of the water rushing around the house and the deep thuds of large ice chunks hitting up against the exterior walls.

Then there were the bees.

We were into beekeeping at the time and our hives’ newest occupants had arrived the week before.

Friends who were more than willing to house our dog and cat for the flood’s duration not too surprisingly drew the line at bees.

So with no other options, we moved the hives up to the porch.

In fact, the little buzzy critters were so happy with that arrangement we kept them there all summer which certainly cut down on annoying door-to-door solicitors that year.

Life, of course, did not stop just because a few of us were waterlogged.

People still had to go to work, and I still had to finish up course work at the university — though it might have been the only time in recorded history one of the toughest professors at the University of Maine at Fort Kent ever allowed an extension on a final term paper.

Stressful? You bet.

We would paddle out in the morning not knowing what we’d find when we got home at the noon hour or that evening.

But even in the midst of the turmoil there were good times.

One evening a bunch of us tied our canoes off a neighbor’s deck. With music provided by a small battery-powered radio we all shared what food and drink we had for an impromptu floating party.

As I recall, someone even fired up a grill on that deck.

A few days later the waters receded and the cleanup began. Luckily, all of the mess was confined to basements, garages, yards and the streets.

No one was hurt, and life pretty quickly got back to normal as appliances and furniture were brought back down to ground level.

That neighborhood is long gone now — federal money in the 1980s funded relocation of all of the residents.

Today a basketball court stands near the site of that party on canoes, part of a park that now covers that entire area.

But like the floodwaters, memories run deep.

This time of year former residents of the old flood plain neighborhood often drift back to the sites of their old homes to watch the water rise. They are likely to note at which points the water would be over the driveways or running into basements.

As for us, we moved high and dry away from any river flooding dangers, though my husband in his infinite wisdom did install a sump-pump in the basement — just in case.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer, who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She may be reached by email at jbaylybdn@gmail.com.

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