Maine residents flee flooding river

A man walks his dog past a flooded Main St. in Fort Kent, Maine on Wednesday April, 30, 2008. Homes and businesses were evacuated Wednesday as spring floods along the St. John River spilled into the downtown of this Canadian border town, marking what emergency management officials described as a 100-year flood for the St. John.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 9:25 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 9:25 a.m.

FORT KENT, Maine The rain-swollen St. John River crested early Thursday after hitting a new record high, forcing residents 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.

The previous record crest of 27.3 feet was set in 1979.

"The water level appears to have crested and is actually moving a bit down, so we don't anticipate any more rises in the river at this point," Dwayne Hubert, operations chief at the Emergency Operations Center in Augusta, said early Thursday.

About 600 people were evacuated in the Fort Kent area. There were no reports of injuries.

Officials continued to keep an eye on other rivers under flood warning in northern Maine, but Hubert said there was no indication of any significant rises elsewhere.

Michael Fitzsimmons, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Caribou, Maine, said the water level at the St. John's River was 29.6 feet at 4 a.m. Thursday, down from a peak of 30.14 feet at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

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.

St. John River, the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi, 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, requested disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The International Bridge over the St. John between Fort Kent and Clair, New Brunswick, was closed amid fears that the raging waters could drag it down.

"There are people who are losing their property, their homes and their livelihoods in a lot of cases," Baldacci said. "I looked at the International Bridge that connects Maine and Canada and it's ready to wash away."

Much of downtown Fort Kent was blocked off. Blue lights flashed at most intersections as police, sheriff's deputies and the Border Patrol monitored water-covered streets.

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 Wednesday night.

The Maine Warden Service and the Washburn fire and police departments directed more evacuations downstream from two dams in danger of breaching.

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