MATTAWAMKEAG, Maine — Town and Pan American Railroad officials spent a nervous day watching the water rise and massive chunks of ice pile up around bridges on the Mattawamkeag and Penobscot rivers from Saturday night into Sunday afternoon, but the ice began to break up around 4:30 p.m. with axes and shovels hewing several big pieces to prevent a sewer line under the main bridge in downtown Mattawamkeag from rupturing and spilling raw sewage into the river.
What officials estimated as a 4-mile ice jam at the confluence of the Mattawamkeag and Penobscot rivers flooded several main and secondary roads. Some were closed, forcing residents, including all on River Road, either to evacuate or be stranded at their homes for most of Sunday.
“They’ve seen this before so they’re all waiting it out,” Mattawamkeag Fire Chief Bobby Powers said earlier Sunday. “We did make contact with them last night to let them know it was flooded, and we were opening an evacuation shelter. We can’t force them to leave. All we can do is make recommendations and hope they make the right decision.”
Powers said town officials began monitoring ice and water levels Saturday night.
“I’ve been working on this since about 9 o’clock last night. We had an alarm going off at Weldon Dam, which happens when they open up a gate. That alarm happened to stick and that’s when we noticed the buildup,” Powers said.
Fire Department personnel went from house to house in high-risk flooding areas to offer to evacuate residents late Saturday night into early Sunday morning.
Philly and Carl Spencer didn’t have to worry about evacuating, or even flooding despite living alongside the Mattawamkeag River on Boyd Street. Some of their neighbors did, however.
“My neighbor came over to borrow my pump this morning, and he’s had it running all day,” said Carl Spencer, a truck driver and longtime town resident. “We expected the snow would melt off with the rain and the level would come up, but we didn’t expect this.
“I’d say it came up about 5 or 6 feet from what it was around 7 o’clock yesterday to what it is now [2 p.m. Sunday]. It’s right even with the banks.”
The National Weather Service in Caribou issued a flood warning for east central Penobscot County, including Mattawamkeag, Sunday morning.
“We were at 16.5 feet back in 1993, and about now we’re at 10.5, and our regular level’s around 9,” Powers said.
Residents and town officials breathed a lot more easily after the jam began to break up Sunday afternoon.
“We used a front-end loader to move a few big ice chunks in the road,” Worster said. “There are a lot of low-lying areas over there, and as far as I know, they’re still basically underwater, but the water has started to recede.”
Spencer said he could remember only four or five instances when flooding occurred since he has lived in town.
“The only other time this happened, about 18 years ago, we had water come over and into the road and about 4 or 5 inches of water in the basement,” he said. “We have had some flooding four or five times in the 45 years I’ve been here, but this is the worst by far.”
Philly (short for Phyllis) Spencer said she thought she’d dodged Mother Nature’s bullets when she traded one coast for the other four years ago, moving from California to Maine.
“I traded flooding and ice for earthquakes and tsunamis,” she said with a laugh. “I guess I like the extremes. I tell my friends I took a really wrong left turn.”
Three doors down the road, Mattawamkeag administrative assistant Steve Worster was trying to stay dry.
“I’ve been here a little over 30 years, and this is a first for me,” said Worster, who also works at PJ’s General Store. “Of course, I just bought a house down there and I’m right on the riverbank, so right now I’m pumping water out.”
It already had been a long Sunday for Worster by the time noon rolled around.
“My fire chief called me at 1:30 this morning and said we had a severe ice buildup and jam. I looked out the window and couldn’t believe it because everything was fine when I went to bed,” he said.
Worster wasn’t the only one who had burned the midnight oil.
“I think I’ve had 45 minutes’ sleep,” Powers said with a chuckle. “I’ve been here nine years and never seen this before. This was a bad winter. This is the beginning of March, and we shouldn’t even have ice-out.”