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Residents recall flood that changed the course of their town

12:36 PM, Mar 7, 2014   |    comments
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FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Flooding in Fort Fairfield was an annual rite of spring. It gave people a chance to get together to watch the Aroostook River as it spilled over its banks. However, the flooding made property owners watch and pray that they'd escape another year unscathed.

On April 16, 1994, an ice jam formed on the river, sending water rushing into the downtown and other low lying spots along the river. 

"The ice was so deep," recalled Mary Schneider. "That was the worry."

Schneider and her family had lived a stone's throw from the Aroostook for a dozen years. While water made its way into their basement almost every year, they never were overly concerned about their safety. That changed rapidly on the day of the flood in 1994.

"We had a few minutes notice. They came along, the fire department I suppose, and said 'you might want to move your cars out of the driveway'," she said. "I don't think we ever dreamt it was coming in the house."

They grabbed a few possessions and brought them upstairs as the flood waters crept up their property. Before long, water started seeping into their house.

"It was scary, but you know, it happened so quickly you don't quite know what to make of it," she said. "Pretty darn soon, we knew we had to beat it upstairs."

Workers soon arrived in a large front end loader to scoop them from the roof of their home.

"It was a dire situation," said Mary's husband, Andreas. "When they told us to get into that front end loader, I had no hesitation whatsoever." 

The Schneider family stayed with friends while they waited for the waters to recede, wondering about the condition of their home.

It took years, and heavy machinery to move their home to higher ground on a new foundation, but the Schneiders were among the lucky few who were able to rebuild once the river receded.

Howard Higgins' family owned a store in Fort Fairfield, Higgins' Market. He said he couldn't even see the river from the business. Each time it flooded, water would come from a nearby brook.

"It came from both sides of the brook, when it came in and surrounded the building," Higgins said, recalling the situation he was faced with across the river at his family's store. "It came to the doorstep and then it would recede, and that was it."

The 1994 flood was different.

"This time, when it started coming in, there was no stopping it," said Higgins. 

According to flood maps, Higgins' Market sat in the 500-year flood plain.

"Well, guess what? The 500 years come up," he said. "It just kept rising, and rising, and rising."

On April 16, he cleared the store's bottom two shelves of groceries and convenience items, thinking he might be able to salvage some of his inventory if the store flooded.

"I might just have well left it there," Higgins said. "I couldn't salvage anything, as far as product goes."

He estimated six to eight feet of water filled the store, and remained there for about eight hours, saturating everything.
First responders arrived and asked if they wanted to be rescued from their second floor living space above the store.

Higgins refused, figuring they would rather wait it out at home. He knew the water couldn't reach that high and that the building was not in danger. Ice floes were demolishing homes and businesses closer to the river's edge.

"Why cry about it? There were three or four other people that were stranded with us, and so we went upstairs and I got the grill out, fried some steaks, had a few drinks, and we had a grand old time, and just waited for the water to recede," he said with a chuckle. "I mean, what else could you do?"

"We never thought that so many people would be impacted," said Tony Levesque, the town code enforcement officer at the time. "We knew we would get wet again."

Levesque said the town had a good warning system in place because the town flooded frequently. There were no deaths or serious injuries because of the warning system, despite widespread devastation.

"The water went over, and it had no place to go, so it literally took the roof off a couple buildings," Levesque said. 

He worked with local, state and federal officials to come up with an acquisition and relocation plan. They purchased and tore down 48 homes and three businesses were relocated off of Main Street.

"There is not a home on West Riverside Avenue anymore," said Levesque.

Officials estimated the damage to be $5 million.

On top of buying homes in low lying areas, a dike was also constructed to protect the downtown.

"Without the business district, then we would be a different town and I don't think we would have been able to survive," said Levesque. "We kept our head above water."

Though the cost to build the dike was controversial, Levesque credits it with protecting the town since it was completed.

"Since we built the dike, we have had five flood events that were worse than that," he stated.

Now, with spring once again on our doorstep, all eyes will be on the Aroostook River, watching to see what surprises might lie in store.



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