Swollen Connecticut River To Begin Ebbing by Wednesday Morning; Roads Still Flooded
With the river forecast to start dropping soon, threats to waterside homes will wane and access to the Meadows section of the city will start opening up.
By DAVID REID
NORTHAMPTON , Aug. 29, 2011 – The Connecticut River is expected to peak at about 117 feet above sea level by tomorrow afternoon or Wednesday morning, state and local officials told Northampton Media Monday.
The river, which normally flows at about 103 feet above sea level, was swollen by heavy rains, by countless roaring tributaries within a three-state watershed, and from controlled releases at flood-control dams.
By 6 p.m. today, the river height measured 116.9 feet above sea level, according to the data from an electronic monitoring station at the city’s Hockanum Road flood-control and pumping station. (To see a time-elevation graph, click here.) The pump station log shows that the river rose steadily during the past 24 hours, from 113.2 feet on mid-day Sunday, 115.3 feet at 4 a.m. Monday, to 116.1 feet at 7 a.m. and 116.5 feet by noon.
At 116 feet above sea level, many roads in low-lying areas of the city were impassable.
Through-traffic on Route 5 to the south was shut down early Tuesday morning between the Easthampton line and Island Road after the water from the Oxbow section of the river spilled out onto the roadway.
Route 66 Reopens After Record Floodwaters Wane
By mid-afternoon Monday, Route 66 was re-opened to through-traffic after a temporary wood-and-iron dike, erected Saturday to contain flash flooding of the Mill River, was removed by Department of Public Works crews. (To see photographs of its being assembled on the West Street Bridge near Smith College, click on the Northampton Media Facebook page here. To read our story on the operation, click here.)
During the day Sunday, the Mill River surged from the hilltowns down through Leeds and Florence towards downtown, before veering off towards Arcadia. (See our photos by clicking here and here.) Although the river never broached West Street, the turbulent river did reach the bottom of the West Street Bridge’s concrete arches, something the city’s top public works official said “we have never seen before.”
In fact, Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Edward “Ned” Huntley told Northampton Media, the Mill River – which normally is measured at about 6 feet deep – reached a peak of 16.42 feet on Sunday afternoon, the highest since 1951, when records were first kept. (It was considerably higher during a 1938 hurricane.)
That’s a 60 year high, surpassing only the 15.58 feet recorded in the spring of 2007, when heavy rains fell on frozen ground and caused massive flooding throughout the region.
During Hurricane Irene, which was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached New England, about 5-6 inches of rain fell on the city, although up to 9-10 inches of rain was recorded in hilltowns within the Mill River’s large watershed area.
Smith College and downtown, however, were protected by a flood-control system that includes an earthen-and-stone dike built in 1940 along the Mill River from the central Smith Campus to West Street and beyond. That was the same year the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also redirected the river away from downtown and south into the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton.
Huntley said DPW crews also operated three massive pumps at the department’s Hockanum Road facility during the storm Sunday to discharge stormwater runoff from the downtown into the Connecticut River from the old Mill River bed.
Asked about the structural safety of the West Street Bridge, the Main Street Bridge in Leeds and other bridges battered by the Mill River Sunday, Huntley said that inspections would be undertaken soon.
Updates from the State’s Emergency Management Agency
Scott MacLeod, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) in Framingham, told Northampton Media that he expects continued tributary discharges and some moderate releases from upstream dams to swell the Connecticut River to a maximum height of about 17 inches by late afternoon Tuesday or Wednesday morning, after which the river should begin to ebb.
“We’re concerned,” said MacLoed. But he said the worst of the storm’s effect was over, and that river levels are being closely watched and managed.
MEMA, MacLoed said, is still getting local reports of washed-out roads and bridges in the region. He said that MEMA , the state Department of Transportation and the Massachusetts National Guard were mobilizing heavy machinery at Greenfield Community College to help repair gravel roads washed away in Hawley and Heath.
Communities along the Westfield and Deerfield Rivers suffered extensive damage and mass evacuations due to water surges from upstream dam failures or releases. The Walker Island Campground near Rt. 20 in Chester was completely swept away, NECN reports.
And an eight-mile stretch of Interstate 91 between Deerfield and Greenfield was shut down Sunday night because of fears of flooding.
(For a report on the region-wide damage wrought by Hurricane Irene, see the Republican Newspaper’s story by clicking here.)
All in all, MacLeod said, the region escaped what was expected to be a tropical storm of great intensity and duration that could have caused much more damage than it did.
“It really could have been a lot worse,” he said.
Northampton Police Chief Russell Sienkiewicz agreed, saying the massive pre-storm planning he helped coordinate between public safety, emergency response, healthcare and human services agencies worked well, even though the scope of the storm was not as vast as forecasts had warned it might be.
“We were unbelievably lucky,” said Sienkiewicz.
Island Road Residents, and One Angry Junkman
Nonetheless, city police officers were knocking on the doors of Island Road residents early Monday morning after the Connecticut River readings reached over 115 feet above sea level. Some residents were also alerted by an automated city telephone-calling system, warning them of high river readings and urging them to seek higher ground.
But Island Road resident Phil Sullivan, a former city councilor who also held emergency response duties in the 1990s, told Northampton Media that residents of his street – which links Route 5 with the Oxbow Marina – were a tough bunch that would never leave their homes until water started lapping the first floors.
Sullivan said officials cannot force residents to abandon their homes. And, in a show of neighborhood unity, Sullivan had scheduled a neighborhood bonfire at his home there for Monday night.
One business owner along Route 5 who said he got no warnings from the city runs the Highway Auto Salvage company, located across the street from the Clarion Hotel near Interstate 91’s Exit 18.
Records show Highway Auto Salvage is owned by Amo Development, LLC, with principals Edward and Rosemary Amo.
The man, who refused to identify himself to this reporter or answer any questions, confronted Northampton Deputy Fire Chief Tim McQueston, who had positioned himself at a roadblock warning Route 5 motorists that through-traffic was prohibited.
The man told McQueston he had tried calling the fire department to find out what “emergency and contingency plans” were in place for his business, where dozens of automobiles were already half-submerged in Connecticut River floodwaters. He said he was not notified of the flood forecasts, and couldn’t reach anyone to answer his questions.
“We’ve never had this problem with the city before,” the man said. “We’ve always been notified.” The deputy held his tongue, but said he would pass along the information.
McQueston said his department had begun alerting Island Road residents on Saturday about the possibility of major flooding, and had stationed a fire engine on the road in case of emergencies. But he said many residents there – especially those who have lived there their whole lives – would do what they felt best, in spite of any official warnings.
“All we can do is inform people of the potential of danger,” said McQueston. “They know more about the river than most people in the city.”
Along River Road near the Northampton Airport, as well as along Fair Street Extension and other roads in the Meadows section of the city – located between the flood-control dikes and the river – the floodwater rose or crept closer to homes, threatening evacuations if the river continued to rise to 120 feet, which no one was predicting yesterday.
Chief Sienkiewicz said city residents and public safety agencies were used to handling river flooding, especially during the annual spring melt-off of snow from up north. “Flooding events we’re kind of used to,” he said.
He said no one expects the river to rise much above 117 feet over the next two days, unless there is an unplanned major dam release or a flood-control failure upstream. If that does happen, he said, there are established protocols for all relevant agencies to spring into action, as they had prepared to do for Hurricane Irene.
“This is why we have the plans in place,” he said.
© 2011 Northampton Media
David Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org