Raging Maine river floods 100 homes, businesses

Levee, bridge hold no injuries seen

'I realize there are some people worse off than us,' Christine Chasse said as she removed debris from her driveway after water receded in Fort Kent, Maine. "I realize there are some people worse off than us," Christine Chasse said as she removed debris from her driveway after water receded in Fort Kent, Maine. (SHAWN PATRICK OUELLETTE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Sharp
Associated Press / May 2, 2008

FORT KENT, Maine - Christine Chasse shoveled copious amounts of snow this winter. She was still using her shovel yesterday, but this time to move water out of her garage after flooding had turned her front yard into a lake and her basement into a swimming pool.

Behind her home, the rain-swollen St. John River raged. Next door, the flooded Fish River was largely kept at bay by a hastily built earthen berm. The wooden stairs to her basement bobbed in waters that nearly reached the first-floor living area.

Despite the big mess, Chasse realized she was lucky.

Nearby, the landmark St. Louis Catholic Church that Chasse attends was flooded, along with more than 100 houses and businesses, after the St. John River hit a record high and overflowed its banks. Police Chief Kenneth Michaud said it could be this weekend before people are allowed to return to their residences.

"I'm very sad to see the church under water, and I realize there are some people worse off than us," Chasse said as she used the shovel to move water and debris from her property.

Emergency management officials echoed her view: Despite record-high waters, the town's levee held and the International Bridge withstood the flood. A failure of the levee or a collapse of the bridge would have sent even more water pouring into the downtown.

About 1,000 residents were evacuated and as many as 140 homes were flooded. Driving around Aroostook County was a challenge because so many bridges and roads were closed.

St. John River peaked early yesterday at 30.14 feet, about 5 feet above flood stage, at Fort Kent before the water slowly began to recede, said Greg Stewart of the US Geological Survey. The river's previous record crest of 27.3 feet was set in 1979.

Forecasters predicted the river would fall below flood stage this morning. But residents won't be allowed to return to their homes near Main Street until the water recedes enough for the Army Corps of Engineers to inspect the levee and the Department of Transportation to inspect the International Bridge, Michaud said.

The spring flooding realized fears of emergency management officials after a winter in which some parts of northern Maine had more than 200 inches of snow. Despite the melting snow, it seemed that the region had dodged heavy floods until 3 to 4 inches of rain fell on Tuesday.

That deluge sent rivers and streams rising across northern Maine.

Elsewhere, flood warnings were issued for portions of the Penobscot, Kennebec, Aroostook, St. Francis and Mattawamkeag rivers. Evacuations were reported in Van Buren, Wallagrass, Milford, and Masardis.

More than 100 state roads and dozens of local roads were shut down or had lanes closed because of flooded waterways, said Lynette Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

Four bridges - two in Fort Kent and one apiece in Van Buren and Moro Plantation - were closed.

Governor John Baldacci, who declared a state of emergency Tuesday night and flew from Augusta to get a firsthand look at the floodwaters on Wednesday, requested aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The National Guard was activated to provide assistance.

The Maine Emergency Management Agency was preparing damage assessments and could make a request for a federal disaster declaration, Miller said.

Emergency management officials praised local authorities yesterday for acting quickly with mandatory evacuations, which were credited with protecting residents.

No one was hurt, authorities said.

At Quigley's Building Supply, the waters filled the lumber yard in less than half an hour, sending lumber downriver and inundating the yard with 12 feet of water.

Manager Justin Dubois was philosophical about the losses. "It's frustrating but at least everyone's OK. Everything is replaceable," he said.

Rose Michaud said many residents knew there would be problems when sheets of rain pelted the region Tuesday. And people had to evacuate in a hurry when authorities went door to door Wednesday morning. Some left behind clothes, medicine, and, in at least one case, false teeth.

"When they came, they said, 'Do it now,' " said Michaud, who left with toiletries and some clothes and took up residence in a motel, where she wondered how she'd run her cleaning business and cut checks next week.

Diane Pinette said her son had to leave his home in downtown Fort Kent and her husband had to spend the night of his birthday in Madawaska because of floods prevented him from getting home from work.

The flooding added insult to injury after a harsh winter, Pinette said. Just five weeks ago, she had snow up to the top of her first-floor window. Now the snow is melted, but downtown is flooded.

"It has been a long winter," she said. "It has just been one after another. People are tired."

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