Rising waters in Athol prompts evacuations
ATHOL – Seventy-year-old Jim Herbert was one of many Athol residents who lined both sides of the South Main Street Bridge Saturday afternoon, amazed by the massive shards of ice jamming the Millers River as far as the eye could see.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Herbert, who has lived in Athol since the first grade.
After a mass of ice broke free from the river early Saturday morning raising flooding concerns, the 26 occupied apartments at the Morton Meadows elderly housing complex were evacuated, according to Morton Meadows Director Christi Martin and Town Manager Shaun Suhoski. Water came just a few feet from the building closest to the river, though there have not been any reports of injury to residents or safety personnel throughout town.
By 6 p.m., Suhoski said, all residents had either found overnight shelter with loved ones or at hotels, or were provided accommodations through the Salvation Army in conjunction with United Way. Some residents temporarily found shelter at the emergency holding area and feeding center set up in the basement of Town Hall.
“There’s a lot of tenants who are sick or disabled,” said Martin, who accompanied the residents to Town Hall. “It was hard on them today.”
Lt. Michael Buzzard of the Salvation Army’s Athol Corps, which oversaw the evacuation center, said the Salvation Army arranged for residents with special needs and medical conditions to stay in nursing homes, and transported them there if needed.
Though Suhoski said there are no plans to open a formal shelter as the risk is limited to very specific properties, Martin and Buzzard agreed her residents may remain evacuated for days.
All residents, Martin said, were told to retrieve any medications during the evacuation, and Buzzard said the Salvation Army is prepared to provide them with clean clothes. Still, some residents were left feeling unprepared.
Sitting in Town Hall, Barbara McLaren, 64, recounted the morning of confusion that saw her leaving her Morton Meadows apartment without a toothbrush or clean clothes.
“You don’t really have time to breathe,” Martin agreed about the unexpectedly hectic day.
As of 4 p.m., McLaren hadn’t decided where she would spend the night out of concern for her 14-year-old Poodle mix Buddy.
“If my dog can’t go, I can’t go,” she said. McLaren said she’d likely seek a hotel in Gardner or Greenfield once she could find a comfortable home for Buddy.
The initial rush of ice Saturday morning affected more than just Morton Meadows. It is believed that ice near the L.S. Starrett impoundment let go at around 7 a.m.
“It’s an unusual occurrence for ice to break in the manner that it did,” said Athol Police Chief Russell Kleber.
Soon after, the rapidly rising mass of ice was witnessed striking the Exchange Street Bridge by Department of Public Works Superintendent Douglas Walsh and a police officer, Suhoski said.
Officials decided to close the Exchange Street Bridge after the ice swept several “hangars” that secure a 10-inch water main to the bridge’s underside downstream, Suhoski continued. A portion of the water main was shut-down as a precaution, but no customers were impacted, he said.
The bridge was closed to traffic out of concerns of unseen structural damage, and Suhoski said the Massachusetts Department of Transportation will inspect the bridge before the road is reopened.
From the Exchange Street Bridge, the ice jam migrated to the area between the South Main Street Bridge and the town’s wastewater treatment plant, Suhoski said. The DPW advised the plant is experiencing very high flow, but that all systems are currently secure.
Dealing with the aftermath
The prime focus of safety personnel, Suhoski said, is the stretch of the Millers River from the South Main Street Bridge to a bend and sand bar roughly a half-mile west, where large chunks of ice are clogging the river and backing up water.
At around 3 p.m., firefighters from the Athol, Royalston and Petersham fire departments could be seen removing water from the lower levels of homes on Canal Street and laying down sandbags to hold back any future flooding. As temperatures dropped, the spewing water created large frozen puddles in the residents’ backyards.
Meanwhile, all roads into Morton Meadows were barricaded. Buzzard said that in addition to helping evacuated residents, the Salvation Army will provide coffee and dinner to first responders.
Relief efforts involved many different organizations, including the Salvation Army, the Athol-Orange Housing Authority, the Athol Fire Department and Athol town staff.
The Massachusetts State Police air wing also flew reconnaissance along the branches of the Millers and Tully rivers to pinpoint areas of concern, Suhoski said.
The town notified neighboring and downstream communities, Suhoski said. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers at Birch Hill Dam is limiting the river’s flow and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency is standing by to assist.
However, Athol wasn't the only town affected by flooding. Doanes Hill Road in Royalston was closed to traffic late Saturday afternoon due to potential flooding from Tully Dam, according to Jeff Mangum, project manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Tully Lake.
"We are holding back water at the Birch Hill and Tully dams due to the flooding situation in Athol, and are closing the road due to potential flooding in the Doanes Hill Road area," he said. "We will eventually be letting the water go, and are monitoring the situation very closely."
The water level at Tully Dam was at 18 feet Saturday morning. By late afternoon, it had risen to 19.3 feet.
"We are storing a lot of water," said Mangum.
Near the South Main Street Bridge, flooding visibly impacted one home on the riverbank that saw water rise about one foot up the garage door.
On the other side of the bridge, Raymond Place residents and brothers Richard Dzeima, 47, and Dennis Dzeima, 50, experienced flooding in their backyard. High water levels, though, didn’t phase the two.
“The water comes up, but never the ice,” Dennis Dzeima said.
“We’ve had water about as high as this when we were scared and ready to leave, but never ice like this,” Richard Dzeima added.
The brothers have lived on Raymond Place for 40 years and have seen plenty of days of high water. On Saturday, Dennis Dzeima needed to retrieve his motorcycle, which was in the backyard, from underwater.
“I’ve seen this many times,” agreed Pete Gerry, 68, of Athol. “They’ve evacuated several times.”
Gerry, who said he’s lived in Athol all his life, recounted how “30 or 40 years ago, they’d dynamite” the lodged ice.
Looking down from the South Main Street Bridge, Gerry pointed out the logs and tree limbs the ice had picked up along the riverbank. Once the ice washes away, he said, all the debris will be cleared.
“Mother nature is pruning its riverbanks,” he said.
Athol Daily News Staff Reporter Deborrah Porter contributed to this story.
This story was updated at 7:45 p.m., Saturday. The original story is as follows:
ATHOL – A mass of ice broke free along the Millers River early Saturday morning forcing the evacuation of the Morton Meadows housing complex and the closure of the Exchange Street Bridge, according to town manager Shaun A. Suhoski.
As of 10 a.m. there are no reports of injuries.
As a precaution against flooding danger, the town temporarily evacuated the residents of the 28-apartment Morton Meadows to the Town Hall until family or friends can assist. Most residents are with family and about 10 residents are currently sheltered with the town. There are no plans to open a formal shelter as the risk is limited to very specific properties.
The initial rush of ice caused several “hangars” that secure a 10-inch water main to the underside of the Exchange Street Bridge to be swept downstream. A portion of the water main was shut-down as a precaution, but, no customers have been impacted.
Due to the risk of other unseen damage, the bridge has been closed to traffic. MassDOT has been advised and an inspection by a bridge team has been requested before the road is reopened, according to Suhoski.
The town has notified neighboring and downstream communities. The Army Corps of Engineers at Birch Hill Dam is aware and limiting the river’s flow. The Mass. Emergency Management Agency has been advised and is standing-by to assist.
The Athol Fire Dept. has been monitoring several points in river for the past week. Athol Fire Chief John Duguay checked the river at about 5:30 this morning at several locations and reported the river was flowing freely.
About 7 a.m. it is believed that ice at or near the L.S. Starrett impoundment let go, and the ice mass hit the Exchange Street Bridge shortly after 7 a.m.
The rapidly rising ice and water flow was witnessed impacting the bridge by the DPW superintendent and a police officer.
The flow tore several hangars that secure the water main to the underside of the bridge. The ice jam migrated to the area between the South Main Street bridge and the area of the river near the town’s wastewater treatment plant.
Late this morning, said Suhoski, the DPW advised that the plant is experiencing very high flow, but that all systems are currently secure.