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On Water Street in Keene, N.H., rescue workers sought stranded people.
On Water Street in Keene, N.H., rescue workers sought stranded people. (Geoff Forester for the Boston Globe)

Hundreds flee deluge; floods isolate towns

Two die, several missing in N.H.

KEENE, N.H. -- Rain-swollen rivers and streams disgorged floodwater yesterday into dozens of New England cities and towns, causing widespread damage and displacement in New Hampshire, where National Guard troops kept order and evacuees fled to shelters.

Southwestern New Hampshire took the brunt of the flooding. In Keene, 4 to 6 feet of water submerged a third of the city, forcing nearly 1,000 people to evacuate their homes. In Alstead, floodwaters flowed over a dam early in the day in a nearly 5-foot-high torrent that damaged more than a dozen bridges spanning Route 123, isolating the town, authorities said.

In Unity, rescue workers found two young people dead in a car under several feet of water, only the car's tires and undercarriage above the surface. Rescue workers yesterday were also investigating several other reports of missing people.

New Hampshire Governor John Lynch declared a state of emergency and dispatched 500 National Guard members to hard-hit areas, including 100 to Keene. ''This is the worst damage they've seen from flooding in 25 years in New Hampshire," he said.

Sean Weeks, 19, was incredulous at the sight outside his house in Hinsdale, N.H., before he fled: ''I looked out my window and all I could see, straight down, was water, right up against the building . . . I saw all this New Orleans stuff happening and I was thinking, 'This can't happen to me,' then bada-bing, bada-boom, it just happened."

Rivers and streams in Western Massachusetts and eastern Vermont rose to ominous levels, prompting hundreds to seek precautionary shelter but in the end causing only minor flooding.

By late afternoon, the rains -- totalling 8 to 11 inches since Saturday -- had stopped, allowing floodwaters to recede in New Hampshire.

But forecasts held potential peril: The National Weather Service yesterday predicted at least two more storms in New England this week could produce enough rain to cause flooding anew in New Hampshire and threaten riverside towns in Western Massachusetts, eastern Vermont, and parts of Connecticut.

''A 1- to 3-inch storm would be quite different than a 3- to 5-inch storm. The [predictions] are all over the place," said Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. ''We're very concerned."

In New Hampshire, the two people killed were Steven Day, 20, of Unity, and Ashley Gate, 20, of Claremont, whose car was found off the side of a flooded-out bridge in Unity. There also were ''less than five" reports of others missing in the flooded area, said Curtis Metzger, spokesman for the New Hampshire Emergency Management office. The only missing person identified was Spencer Petty, 55, last seen yesterday on the bank of the Cold River in Alstead.

Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray said injuries and deaths were minimized after police and highway crews blocked damaged roads before dawn.

''We were lucky there weren't more [fatalities] and a lot of that was because these guys did get out so fast," she said, adding that road damage would require extensive repairs. ''A quick assessment is we're probably looking at months, not weeks."

Rescue crews in small towns throughout southwestern New Hampshire nervously watched dams and levees, reinforcing them with sandbags in some cases and hoping to avoid the waterwall that drenched Alstead.

In Stoddard, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch as officials watched the Highland Lake dam. Residents were being moved out of their homes. Authorities said that if the earthen dam failed, a 6-foot wave of water could hit Mill Village, South Stoddard, and part of Route 9 along the north branch of the Contoocook River.

''This is classic river flooding," said James Van Dongen, spokesman for the emergency management office. ''It's not like New Orleans, where you've got a huge flooded area. It is individual neighborhoods, streams, and low-lying areas."

In Keene, about 200 people went to a shelter set up by the Red Cross, while hundreds of others stayed with friends or relatives, said state officials. The flooding covered much of Keene's southeastern residential quadrant.

Yesterday, city residents rode bikes in waist-deep water, while others roamed with cameras and video-recorders. Streams of water gushed through backyards while parking lots became ponds.

The only open road in and out of town was Route 101. Local authorities filled a 3-foot sand berm to keep it open. Floodwaters crested at 2 p.m., estimated Keene police Sergeant Kenneth Meola. He said crews were having difficulty removing water because the local sewer system and wetlands were saturated, leaving no destination for floodwater.

Massachusetts yesterday fared better. ''The rivers are high, but they're not going over," said Judge, the emergency management spokesman.

Shelters were set up in Williamstown, Bernardston, Greenfield, Dalton, Cheshire, North Adams, and Chester to house nearly 500 residents who evacuated their homes, Judge said.

In Williamstown, police evacuated about 50 residents of a trailer park and several homes along the Hoosic River. Many spent Saturday night at an elementary school, but all of the evacuated residents were allowed to return home by yesterday afternoon, said Police Sergeant David Lemieux.

With more rain predicted, Judge said, the risk of future flooding appeared to be most serious along the Connecticut and Westfield rivers.

In Vermont, Brattleboro and Guilford appeared to have been the hardest-hit, although southern Vermont sustained damage.

About 200 Brattleboro residents were evacuated. Mark Metayer, deputy commissioner of Vermont's Public Safety Department, said floodwaters had receded and some roads were reopened.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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