FORT KENT, Maine — Four years ago, this St. John Valley town was cleaning up from the one of the worst floods in its history.
In May 2008, a record snowpack was melting under heavy rainfalls, pushing the St. John and Fish rivers to record levels until the two waterways overflowed their banks and became joined, flooding a good portion of the homes and businesses along East Main Street.
Over on West Main Street, the downtown business district and apartments were protected by a 35-year-old dirt levee which, for a period of the 2008 flood, came within inches of being breached.
Four years ago the levee did its job and protected the town from what was considered a “400-year” flood event.
But according to a report issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the town may not be so lucky next time.
“Living Behind the Levee, Fort Kent, Maine: Knowing the Threat (and) Anticipating the Vulnerability” was issued in early 2010 and more than once warns of potential shortfalls of the levee.
According to the report, when it comes to the possibility of future flooding overtopping the earthen berm, “it is not a matter of if, but of when.”
Based on that observation, the report goes on to note, “Fort Kent can wait and do nothing and accept whatever comes its way. Or it can make a deliberate choice now to limit flood risk and shape its destiny.”
Living along the St. John River does come with its share of risks and concerns, Town Manager Don Guimond said, but they are risks residents have accepted and continue to mitigate.
“When the levee was built it was designed to withstand a 100-year flood,” Guimond said. “That was the risk the community accepted and it was a risk it could be overtopped by a worse flood.”
Though the flood of 2008 far exceeded that 100-year flood benchmark, Guimond noted the levee did its job and protected the downtown area.
“In 2008 [the levee] withstood a 200- to 400-year flood event and survived,” he said. “We could go another 1,000 years and not see another flood like that.”
According to the FEMA report, however, now is the time for the town to begin proactive plans to deal with any possible future floods, including developing response and cleanup plans and “continuing to invest in the existing downtown with risk reduction in mind or creating alternative places for future growth out of harm’s way or do both.”
Such planning is crucial, according to the report, given that changing weather patterns could result in increasing snowmelt and water runoff in the future.
“Hydrologists agree that an even bigger flow than that of 2008 will overtop the levee someday in the future,” according to the report. “It is impossible to predict exactly when this will happen but all data point toward the inevitability of a greater, more threatening event.”
Ivy Frances, chief of FEMA’s floodplain management and insurance branch, was one of the lead authors of the report and said it was generated to help Fort Kent officials in their decision making on flood threats.
“Communities that are proactive can recover quicker from disaster events,” Frances said. “They have greater capacity to respond and citizens feel much more safer, confidant, engaged and positive about their town.”
Guimond agreed that resident input is important as the town assesses any flood threats and noted the topic is covered in the new municipal comprehensive plan currently under development. There will be opportunities for comment and questions during upcoming public hearings on the proposed plan.
“These are some of the same conversations that were taking place more than 30 years ago when the levee was constructed,” Guimond said.
In the mid-1980s the town did opt to relocate a neighborhood on the floodplain which is now Riverside Park off East Main Street.
Among the recommendations in the FEMA report is that the town consider doing the same thing with the West Main Street downtown area.
“This can be a practical solution and there are several examples where communities have chosen to do so,” Frances said. “Fort Kent is in the position where they don’t have to wait for a disaster, but can take advantage of this solution in a proactive, organized and orderly way, having the opportunity to gradually make capital investments in safer development.”
Moving the West Main Street neighborhood was the best solution for that unprotected area of Fort Kent, Guimond said, and while there are no plans to relocate any of the downtown business district, he did add officials continue to identify potential growth areas that are not in the flood zone.
At the same time, mitigation efforts continue, including the construction of the new international bridge linking Fort Kent to New Brunswick, Canada.
The old bridge, Guimond said, is notorious for blocking ice and creating jams in the spring that can produce massive flooding.
“The new bridge will enhance the protective nature of the levee,” he said. “It is designed to minimize the impact of flooding.”
As for the levee, Guimond said the structure is in very good shape and the town takes seriously its responsibility to keep it in good repair.
“Is it indestructible? No,” he said. “But it is a risk the community has accepted and it certainly did its job in 2008 and has worked all those years before that.”
If anything, Guimond said, the flood of 2008 was a good wake-up call to the community that residents must never be complacent when it comes to natural disasters.
“As a community we have been proactive and done a lot to mitigate potential flooding,” he said. “But yes, we can do more and we will try to do more [and] 2008 brought the awareness level up.”
The FEMA report remains a living document and Guimond said it was used in formulating flood-related policies within the new comprehensive plan.
“It was our hope that the report would be informative and help in that process,” Frances said.