The Star-Herald

Sigh of relief — sort of

On Thursday night, April 18, I couldn’t have been more concerned. Guidance was suggesting that the St. John River would go into major flood within a few days,  quite possibly exceeding the record crest of 2008. It appeared the Aroostook would challenge records as well. And that was not our only concern, as there was a big ice jam on the Aroostook River at Washburn that caused the water to back up, stranding families on the Gardner Creek Road. Several homes had water in their basements, with one basement reportedly having five feet in it.

Then, finally, in the wee hours of Easter Sunday, the jam let go, washing huge chunks of ice onto Route 164. This necessitated a temporary closure, until a payloader could come to clear the ice away. Somehow, through it all, the fine old Rum Rapids house escaped the river’s wrath.

It’s rather unusual to have the ice jam season and the general flood season right on top of each other. In the ’08 flood, the ice had flushed a couple of weeks earlier, as I recall.

So what saved us from severe, potentially historic flooding? Well, it was all in the timing. It had looked like a 2- to 3-inch region-wide rainfall would occur during very mild weather. Instead, the rain fell while it was quite cool, and then it warmed up. What a relief it was to see the guidance for the river levels start to come in lower and lower, once they picked up on the influence the cooler temps would have on meltwater release.

Next time you are by the St. John, or any river for that matter, stand next to it, and  then visualize it rising about five vertical feet, and then look all around you and notice how much land could be covered with water if that rise were to occur.

Five feet is close to the difference between the record crest of 2008, and where the St. John at Fort Kent ended up this year. It may not seem like a lot, but five feet is a big number when you’re talking river levels.

But now we get to the “sort of” part of the title of this column. It’s not a full sigh of relief because, at this writing on April 24, I’m concerned about rising lakes. Portage has come up quite sharply (more than six feet in less than two weeks), and it figures to rise some more. Also, the Fish River chain of lakes could rise significantly.

It was just last year when an ice shove caused a lot of damage around Birch Point on Portage Lake. A damaging ice shove can occur when a lake, with ice still on it, rises sharply. The ice is then level with structures, and when a strong wind comes along, it blows any loose ice to shore, and into homes and camps. That exactly what happened last year. The buildings were no match for the tremendous force exerted by the wind-blown water and ice. We got away easy on the rivers; I hope we can do it on the lakes, as well.

One last thing about rivers: for whatever reason, kids love looking at high water, and a lot of people let their guard down when the rivers fall below flood stage. But the rivers are still swift and high, and can get them in trouble in the blink of an eye.

Ted Shapiro holds the Broadcast Seal of Approval from both the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association. An Alexandria, Va. native, he has been chief meteorologist at WAGM-TV since 2006. Email him at tshapiro@wagmtv.com.

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