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Town Waits Beneath a Faltering Dam

A swollen river tests the 1832 wooden weir and Taunton, Mass., which orders evacuations.

October 19, 2005|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

TAUNTON, Mass. — City officials on Tuesday closed the downtown business district, canceled school and evacuated about 2,000 residents as fear mounted that an old wooden dam could burst under pressure from a rain-swollen river.

The Whittenton Mill Dam, built in 1832, is deteriorating and could unleash a wall of water up to 6 feet high, Mayor Robert G. Nunes said Tuesday.

"The city of Taunton is still in a state of emergency," he said. "If the dam goes, it will create massive flooding along the Mill River and into the downtown area."

The 12-foot-high dam began to buckle about 2 a.m. Tuesday. So far this month, 11 1/2 inches of rain have fallen on Taunton, a city about 35 miles south of Boston.

Officials said at least one timber column had washed away, allowing water to leak through and under the dam.

Nunes said that the privately owned dam had passed a routine inspection two years ago. It is one of about 3,000 privately owned dams in the state.

By early Tuesday, an emergency response team -- including state police, county sheriff's deputies, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency personnel, Taunton safety officials and a squad of divers -- had gathered in this city of 56,000.

The gymnasium at Taunton High School was converted into a Red Cross shelter.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney visited the city Tuesday morning.

Nunes said that the state's senators, Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, and Rep. Barney Frank had called to promise federal assistance if necessary.

"Obviously, a situation like this is one of the largest threats we have faced in a very long time," the mayor said.

Bob Nadeau, regional director for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said the voluntary evacuation included more than 200 homes and apartment buildings along the river, as well as the closing of Taunton's commercial district.

"You evacuate when you have to," Nadeau said. "If anything was learned from New Orleans and more recently in New Hampshire [where floods last week claimed seven lives], it is that if people do not evacuate, you lose lives."

Jim Dorsey, owner of a plumbing company and three other buildings on Taunton's Main Street, was not happy about the emergency response plan.

Dorsey went around police barricades and was at his desk at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday.

"Evacuate?" Dorsey said. "I can't evacuate. I'm trying to run a business .... This is not exactly much ado about nothing, but it is much ado about not too much."

Steve Nunes, owner of a tropical fish store near City Hall, was also at work Tuesday morning.

"I just brought in about $2,000 worth of fish," said Nunes, no relation to the mayor. "I had to get in here and get these fish into tanks."

Charlie Crowley, a member of the City Council and Taunton's unofficial historian, said that the city last flooded in 1968, when the same dam burst.

He applauded Tuesday's disaster response.

"Even if it makes for a couple of days of inconvenience," Crowley said, "it's always better to be over-prepared in a situation like this."

At a news conference, Romney ordered an inspection of dams around the state -- and said that at least 40 other dams in Massachusetts were in poor or unsafe condition.

"If they were to breach, there would be a significant loss of life or property," the governor said.

He said the Taunton dam had been repaired since its last inspection, "but this water was more than had been expected or anticipated."

Romney added: "I've got my fingers crossed that this thing is able to hold."

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