The rain-swollen St. John River crested early Thursday, May 1, after hitting a record high, forcing residents in Fort Kent, Maine to flee to higher ground as more than 100 homes flooded.
Rain and melting snow raised the St. John to more than 30 feet — about 5 feet above flood stage — causing widespread flooding. But the community dodged a bullet because the water never topped a levee that protects downtown, said Bruce Fitzgerald, spokesman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency.
About 600 people were evacuated in the Fort Kent area and officials sighed with relief that the water did not spill over the levee. Also, the International Bridge between Fort Kent and Clair, New Brunswick, held up despite fears that the raging waters could drag it down, choking the fast-moving river.
“If the bridge had let go, that would’ve been the end for Fort Kent. The whole town would’ve washed out,” Police Chief Kenneth Michaud said Thursday. No one was hurt, he said.
Greg Stewart of the U.S. Geological Survey said the river peaked at 30.14 feet around midnight at Fort Kent, and the water level had dropped to 29.2 feet by 6:30 a.m. Forecasters had feared it would hit 31 feet overnight, enough to top the levee.
Scientists described the flooding for the community of 4,200 people in Fort Kent as “greater than a 100-year event,” said Lynette Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency.
Across the river in Canada, officials issued warnings to residents in low-lying areas around Fredericton, New Brunswick, about 200 miles from Fort Kent. Up to 1,300 homes there were threatened by rising water.
The St. John River totals about 410 miles in length, with 210 of those miles in Maine. It starts in Maine, forms the border with Canada in one section and continues through New Brunswick to the ocean.
Gov. John Baldacci, who flew from Augusta to get a firsthand look at the floodwaters Wednesday, activated the National Guard and requested disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We’re not through it yet,” he said Wednesday night in a statement. “Our first focus is on making sure people are safe. After the water levels have dropped, we will move forward quickly with cleanup and recovery efforts.”
Much of downtown Fort Kent was blocked off. Blue lights flashed at most intersections as local police, state police, sheriff’s deputies and the Border Patrol monitored water-covered streets.
The International Bridge will remain closed for several days until waters recede enough for a Department of Transportation crew to inspect the structure to make sure it’s safe for vehicles.
Evacuations also took place along the St. John River in Van Buren, downstream from Fort Kent, and in the Penobscot County town of Mattawamkeag, where the Mattawamkeag and Penobscot rivers spilled over their banks, according to the National Weather Service.
Officials have been watching the St. John since last week, when rising waters caused concern on the Canadian side. Those waters had been receding until a deluge of at least 3 inches of rain began Tuesday, said Joseph Hewitt of the National Weather Service in Caribou.
There was still a half-foot of snow on the ground following a winter that dumped around 200 inches of snow in the region, and the melting snow exacerbated the situation.
Classes were canceled and students were moved from the University of Maine at Fort Kent to create a shelter, where a handful of people took up residence.
The Maine Warden Service and the Washburn fire and police departments directed more evacuations downstream from two dams in danger of breaching.
Michaud, the police chief, said the region will bounce back. “Give it a couple of weeks and people will be right back on their feet. People are strong up here,” he said.
Associated Press writer Bob Salsberg in Boston contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Maine Emergency Management Agency: http://www.state.me.us/mema
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