EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 12, 2013

Keep waters at bay

River gauge offers security to flood victims

By Dustin Luca
dluca@eagletribune.com

---- — ANDOVER — Everyone has memories related to Mother’s Day. But some in the region remember one year more vividly than the rest: 2006, when they were forced to evacuate their homes in rowboats after a brutal rainstorm pushed the Merrimack and Shawsheen rivers well beyond their limits.

The flooding, which turned a portion of Route 28 through Andover and the surrounding property into a mile-long pond, caused more than $2.5 million in damages, not including what insurance companies wouldn’t cover, according to North Main Street resident J. Barry Mahoney.

“That was really horrible. We had no warning,” said Connie Greenwood of Washington Park Drive. “They took (residents) out in boats and trucks from the town.”

Last week, residents adjacent to the Shawsheen in the area of North Main and Balmoral streets won some assurance that they won’t end up trapped again if the river should overflow.

Town Meeting agreed to spend $60,000 in tax dollars on a stream-gauging station on the Shawsheen River to record water levels and broadcast flood warnings days in advance.

Despite opposition from the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee, the citizens’ petition won by an overwhelming margin. The funds will allow the gauge to remain online through October 2017.

The 2006 flood caught residents by surprise. Many seniors were forced to quickly evacuate, leaving vital medications and other belongings behind with no immediate chance of returning to retrieve them, Mahoney said.

Cars throughout the area were destroyed. The showroom at Woodworth Motors at Shawsheen Square was flooded with up to 20 inches of water. Market Basket which had employees establish a wall of sandbags at each entrance, was the only retailer in Shawsheen Plaza that didn’t lose its stock.

The following year, a gauge was installed on the river at Balmoral Street. But town funding for the station was eliminated in 2010. Concerned businesses and residents agreed to cover half of the $15,000 in annual operating costs, with the federal government matching their support. Then, last June, the federal funds were lost completely.

Mahoney, who led the successful Town Meeting petition, said residents and businesses had no choice in October but to pick up the full tab to keep the system in operation.

“We felt desperate,” he said. “We were worried about Mother’s Day this year.”

Greenwood, who has spent her life living adjacent to the Shawsheen, said she is “tickled to death” that the funding was approved.

Greenwood was 11 years old when she first fled flood waters by boat in 1936. Then seven years ago, she found herself in the same position.

Luckily, the gauge was in place in 2010 when the Shawsheen River once again exceeded its banks. While the flooding caused $1.5 million in damages, residents say the situation wasn’t to the magnitude of 2006 because many residents could prepare their homes and leave the area before the waters rose, Mahoney said.

The gauge was also able to provide real-time data on what the river was doing both before and after the 2010 flood, aiding emergency efforts.

The Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee argued against funding for the stream-gauging station, saying there are already existing systems in town. Officials also said “significant information” demonstrating the benefit of the gauge was lacking and alternatives should be considered before tax dollars are dedicated to one solution.

But supporters of the article rejected the claims, saying that the town’s systems weren’t effective in 2006 and they aren’t able to provide sufficient advance warning in the event of another flood.

For Mahoney, approval of the funding also represents a victory for grassroots initiatives.

“We just got everybody we could find, everybody that lived up the street here, said, ‘Just come to the meeting, vote and see what happens,’” he said. “People after the meeting came up to me, congratulated me, but also acknowledged the fact that ‘anything is possible. You did something you believed in, and it worked.’”

Conservation Director Bob Douglas, a long-time supporter of the river gauge, said he’s looking at its future benefits, flood or no flood.

Starting next year, several agencies will be teaming up to remove two dams from the Shawsheen River.

The gauge will provide vital data as to how the river responds to the work, according to Douglas.

“We’ll have a very good snapshot of what changes we see in the river, as far as the flood levels go or anything like that,” he said. “It would be a good way to check the performance of the removal of the dam.”