Deluge churns up old issue

Steps to stop floods stymied by cost

A street next to the Moody Street dam, on the Charles River, was flooded as heavy rains pounded the region. The Charles River Museum shut down after being flooded with 8 inches of water. A street next to the Moody Street dam, on the Charles River, was flooded as heavy rains pounded the region. The Charles River Museum shut down after being flooded with 8 inches of water. (Photos By Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Jessica Rudis
Globe Correspondent / March 21, 2010

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As Waltham dries out after its worst floods in recent memory, officials are mobilizing to seek federal relief funds and grappling with how to avoid becoming waterlogged again.

But the city’s trademark resilience was on display last week at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation. Even after its antique steam engines and other heavy machinery became inundated with water, executive director Dan Yaeger vowed the museum would reopen again.

“We’re going to be stronger than ever,’’ Yaeger said Thursday. “We’re planning on reopening more in a manner of a few months rather than way off in the distance.’’

Floodwaters flowed into streets, businesses, and homes after the late-winter storm dropped more than 10 inches of rain over 72 hours, causing the Charles River to surge to its highest level in recent memory. Visiting Waltham near the height of the flooding, Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency.

As the cleanup began last week, city officials worked to assess the damage. They plan to meet Wednesday with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to see if Waltham is eligible for relief money. The meeting will take place at 7 p.m. in the Government Center Auditorium.

“I can’t estimate the damage, because at this point we just don’t know,’’ Mayor Jeannette McCarthy said Wednesday.

City Councilor Robert Waddick said some of the flooding was unprecedented and could not have been prevented, but the city could have taken steps to mitigate some of the damage.

“We’ll have to go back and assess the things that perhaps we could do that we haven’t done, and look at the things that were suggested in the past that haven’t been implemented,’’ Waddick said.

Thomas Stanley, a state representative and Waltham city councilor at large, said the city previously considered a number of proposals for flood prevention strategies, but was never able to implement them.

“A lot of remedies weren’t pursued because of cost, and property taxes have been increasing,’’ Stanley said. “These projects are obviously going to cost a lot more money and the city taxpayers would have to pay for them.’’

Stanley said the original estimates are now outdated, but were in the millions of dollars.

Waddick and Stanley said past proposals included a plan to turn the areas in front of the YMCA and the John F. Kennedy Middle School, both on Lexington Street, into natural retention areas to prevent excess water flowing into part of the southern section of Waltham, which had the most serious flooding, and a plan to divert storm water into the Cambridge reservoir.

The city previously commissioned a report from consulting firm Rizzo & Associates on flood prevention strategies. Stanley said there was a lot of talk following the report, but not much action.

“There’s been a lot of money spent on consultants through the years, and not a lot of implementation,’’ he said.

Waddick said that although it is necessary to look forward to prevent future flooding, he believes it is important not to overlook the people who are still dealing with the damage caused by last week’s rain storm.

“We should focus on the victims and not be jumping the gun in terms of pointing fingers and assessing what should have been done,’’ he said.

The Charles River Museum shut down after being flooded with 8 inches of water. But damage to the museum’s historic contents was minimal, since staffers and volunteers moved everything they could, including a 1908 Orient automobile, a 1910 motorcycle, and original artwork and blueprints, to dry ground as water began rising.

They couldn’t move the museum’s heavy machinery on display. But although the machines will have to be restored carefully, Yaeger said he didn’t expect they would be permanently damaged.

“It was unreal, walking through the museum in a pair of waders,’’ Yaeger said. Just the previous Friday, “we were walking around giving tours. It is kind of a shock.’’

Housed in the historic 1814 Boston Manufacturing Co. textile mill, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the museum’s website.

Museum officials will assess the damage and talk with their insurers and specialists to guide them as they clean the machines. The carpets, and potentially the interior walls, are ruined and will need to be replaced, but the exterior walls are made of brick and seem to be undamaged, Yaeger said. Events on the second floor should be able to resume earlier than on the main floor.

The old mill building is “not a very easy place to destroy. But it does give you a sense of the power of nature, that’s for sure.’’

Kathleen Burge of the Globe staff contributed to this report.