Municipal department heads and employees learn about flood preparedness

5 years ago

CARIBOU, Maine — Municipal department heads and employees from across The County and beyond learned about flooding preparedness during a March 27 seminar held at the Caribou Utilities District.

The process of dealing with a flood, said Bill Sheehan of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, can be exhausting for municipal departments, as such situations can last for weeks and it’s easy to get burned out.

“We as professionals exhaust ourselves when these things happen,” he told those gathered. “It’s hard, and you realize you have weeks of craziness ahead of you. If you’re a manager, recognize that your staff is going to be under stress both at home and on the job. And don’t be shy to ask for help. That’s what our response partners and various agencies can do.”

Officials representing Frenchville, Fort Kent, Fort Fairfield, Ashland, Caribou, Eagle Lake, Houlton, Limestone, Madawaska, Mapleton, Mars Hill, Wade, Washburn, Van Buren, as well as some from as far as Orono, Veazie, and Old Town attended the event.

Some of the officials expected to be monitoring the Aroostook and St. John rivers over the weekend with above freezing temperatures and rain anticipated.

Donald Dumont of the National Weather Service in Caribou said that both rivers are expected to rise about two feet, but he said there is not a high risk of flooding yet.

“There could be some minor ice movement in the rivers,” he said, “mostly where the tributary rivers flow into the Aroostook and St. John rivers. We’re looking at a general two foot rise.”

But a cold front forecast to move in Sunday will bring overnight temperatures back to below freezing. Dumont said that, overall, Saturday’s slightly warmer night will not likely bring any floods, but it will weaken the ice in these rivers.

He told the group on Wednesday that the beginning of April looks like it could bring “slightly above average temperatures,” and that temperatures are at the point where they’re really going to start to shoot up eventually and melt some snow.

“There’s no strong signal of a late spring this year,” he said, “which is a good thing, because winter started early.”

Sheehan said that because a substantial amount of precipitation is stored in the snowpack, it can be released within a fairly short amount of time, which leads to high water levels in rivers and streams, saturated soils, and possible floods.

He said it is crucial for employees who work in water and wastewater utilities departments to be prepared, as their facilities are typically located near flood zones, are critical for environmental and health protection infrastructure, and contain some of the most expensive municipal assets to replace.

These facilities in particular are at risk for flash floods, high wastewater flows, spills, bypasses, upsets, high groundwater saturation, ice damage, power loss, and loss of access. To prepare and ideally prevent any of the aforementioned issues, he said departments can take some time to identify possible risks or seek an engineer to do so, plan a response, and monitor the upcoming weather conditions.

Officials can also inventory critical equipment in case it becomes damaged, ensure they have access to power and fuel ahead of time, and secure vulnerable supplies and equipment by relocating them to a higher floor or area that is not as prone to flood damage.

Aroostook EMA Director Darren Woods added that it’s important to remind employees to prepare at home as well.

“If they’re not prepared at home,” he said, “then they’re not going to be there when you need them. It’s a good reason to invest a little bit of time, or include a flyer with their paycheck explaining how they can come to your department when you need assistance.”

“You might have employees that have never been through a flood,” said Sheehan. “Old geezers with grey beards, we all remember. You might have to work straight through for a week and a half. These are all things that should be discussed with employees so they can discuss them at home.”

He added that it can also help to let customers know as soon as possible if there is potential for a flood, and “what we might be up against.”

During the flood itself, Sheehan said things can “start to get weird.”

“It never ceases to amaze me all the things that people ask water and wastewater people when things start going on,” he said. “I’ve seen people drag inflatable rafts down the river through ice and trees with kids saying they’re going out on the river. People are going to ask you a lot of questions, and if you have a patch on your arm or you’re an official, they’re going to think you know everything.”

Because of this, he said it’s important to seek out those answers ahead of time and to prioritize communication while monitoring the current flooding potential.

Documentation of the flood is also important, according to Sheehan, who said “It will amaze you what you forget once the poop hits the fan.”

Woods added that the more photos taken during a flood, the better the outlook in terms of possibly qualifying for disaster relief funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“It’s getting harder and harder to get federal [disaster] declarations,” he said. “If they come in and don’t see anything, and you don’t have any pictures, they’re not going to say you deserve the declaration. So make sure you’re documenting floods and taking a lot of pictures.”

Sheehan said that, as a Maine DEP official, it’s also important that flooding hazards such as overflows in bypasses are reported to his agency so they can properly monitor any issues.

Both Sheehan and Woods also discussed online resources available for monitoring floods, including the National Weather Service in Caribou, the Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service, the USGS Water Resources River Gauges, Maine Emergency Management Alerts, as well as the Facebook page “Aroostook County Flood Watch,” which provides active updates and photos of floods or potential floods in the area.

Tom Bahun, chair of Maine WARN (the Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network) also thanked representatives of the Caribou Utilities District for hosting the four-hour gathering.