By RAY HENRY, Associated Press Writer
A dam on the rain-swollen Mill River deteriorated overnight and
Taunton prepared for the worst Tuesday, evacuating residents,
canceling classes and closing off downtown amid fears of a wall of
water up to 6 feet deep.
Mayor Robert Nunes, at a hastily called news conference, said the
situation at the wooden Whittenton Pond Dam upstream from the city
took a turn for the worse about 2 a.m. Tuesday, resulting in an
increase of water flow. "It is looking sort of grim today", said
the Mayor and other officials.
"The city of Taunton still is in a state of emergency," Nunes
said. "If the dam goes, it will create massive flooding along the Mill
River and into the downtown area. Most likely _everything_ will be
Lake Sabbatia, the body of water behind the dam, had gone down about
an inch overnight, Fire Chief Joseph Rose said. But rain began falling
again as dawn broke. Officials were trying to relieve pressure on the
dam, roughly a half-mile upstream from downtown, by tweaking the flow
between it and a second dam upstream, Rose said.
Officials said that if the Whittenton Pond Dam burst it could unleash
a wall of water up to 6 feet high and flood neighborhoods and downtown
Taunton. They stated it would be the same as 'those levees in New
Orleans last month; water several feet deep everywhere.'
"I've got my fingers crossed that this thing is able to hold,"
Gov. Mitt Romney said Tuesday morning. "Water's going under the
dam. It's going through some areas that are weakened and there's every
prospect that it will give way and we'll have a very significant water
"On the other hand, a few of us can hope that it hangs together and it
ties together as long as possible and that the water is able to leak
out in a relatively controlled manner," he said. "If that were the
case, we'd all breathe a great sigh of relief."
Dive teams were standing by if rescues proved necessary, and a shelter
had been set up at the local high school, manned by the Red
Cross. Army Corps of Engineers employees were placed on alert.
Nearly 2,000 people were evacuated from their homes near the river on
Monday when emergency management officials warned that the dam had
lost a timber column and could break within 24 hours. The National
Weather Service issued a flood warning, calling the situation
"extremely dangerous. We'll be quite lucky to get out of this with no
substantial damage. After the rain stops completely, there will have
to be major repairs made on the dam on a rush basis."
Police and firefighters were going door to door, urging residents to
go stay with relatives and friends or at the shelter in the fieldhouse
at Taunton High School. During the early morning hours Tuesday, busses
picked up residents and their possessions who were willing to ride
along to the shelters.
"It's been intense," said Susan Jones, who lives a few hundred yards
uphill from the dam, in an area that had not been evacuated. "We heard
the helicopters all night long. I laid awake half the night waiting for
someone to knock on the door."
The state Highway Department closed roads leading into Taunton and the
Massachusetts National Guard dispatched crews to the area to assist
with any last-minute evacuations. Telephone and electric utility
workers were also waiting for instructions to begin repairs as needed.
"We're very concerned about public safety," Romney said after
surveying the dam late Monday. He returned early Tuesday morning and
met with the mayor at City Hall. "This will not turn into the sort of
mass confusion that New Orleans had. You will either drive your own
car or take the busses we provide and evacuate the area," said Romney.
Taunton, a former 19th-century manufacturing hub about 40 miles south
of Boston, lies at the confluence of the Mill and Taunton rivers. The
working-class city, which has a population of nearly 50,000, was last
flooded in March 1968 when the same dam was breached. City Councilor
Charles Crowley, a local historian, said there was also catastrophic
flooding in February 1886 following several days of rain.
The Whittenton Pond Dam is privately owned -- one of about 3,000
private dams in the state -- according to Romney. The dam was
inspected two years ago and was considered in fair condition at that
time, he said.
Some repairs were made since then, Romney said, but "this water was
more than had been expected or anticipated."
Some areas of the state received more than 16 inches of rain over the
past eight days, with the heaviest rainfall in the Taunton area coming
Friday night and all day Saturday.
Lisa Campbell, who lives near the river, said she and her children
planned to stay at her sister's house on the other side of the city.
"It's better to be safe than sorry," she said. "You saw how many
people had to be rescued from New Orleans when they didn't leave." The
mayor noted that "we do not want to come back as the water is being
pumped out and have to do a body count."
The newsroom of the Taunton Daily Gazette was evacuated, though several
reporters stayed at the scene, publisher John Shields said. The paper is
published at its sister newspaper in Fall River.
"We are erring on the side of caution," Nunes said. "If the dam goes, we
will have major problems in our city."
Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie and Richard Lewis contributed to
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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