TAUNTON, MA (AP) Less than a week after heavy rains weakened a 173-year-old wooden dam and prompted officials to evacuate 2,000 residents, close businesses and declare a state of emergency under fears of flooding, crews here finished building a new, sturdier rock dam and tore down the old decrepit one.
Construction on the new dam started Oct. 21 afternoon and finished Oct. 22 evening, as crews worked in breakneck speed, and sometimes in the rain. The National Weather Service lifted a flash flood warning when crews finished the new dam. Wet weather settled over this city south of Boston just after noon Oct. 22.
“We prefer not to work this fast,” said Michael Nisslin, deputy chief engineer of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. But, Nisslin said, it was necessary to complete the project before additional rain could again raise the water in the Mill River to a dangerous level.
The wooden Whittenton Pond dam buckled and started breaking apart on Oct. 17 after a weekend of heavy rain. Fearing a breach would send a wall of water up to 6 ft. crashing through the city, Mayor Robert Nunes evacuated 2,000 residents and closed downtown businesses for several days.
By Oct. 21, all residents were back in their homes and pumping had brought the water level behind the dam down approximately 3 ft.
Officials had planned to reinforce the old structure, but later scrapped the idea after an inspection showed it was beyond repair.
“The dam — she’s up and running,” declared Peter Higgins, a spokesman of the city, at approximately 4 p.m. Oct. 22.
Acting Fire Chief Leman Padelford said the rock dam would provide stability not available from the wooden structure.
“It won’t be leaving next week,” he said. Padelford added that the rock structure would likely be replaced or modified once the dam’s owners and state and local officials discuss its future in coming weeks. But, any additional modifications wouldn’t happen until the spring, Padelford said.
The new dam spans 100 ft. (30.5 m) across the Mill River and is 25 ft. (7.6 m) thick. It connects to the concrete base of the old wooden structure, and is designed to slow the flow of water down the river.
Piping, or culverts, carries water through the structure. Any major rise in water levels would cause the river to spill over the boulders in a small waterfall. Nisslin said the rock barrier creates a slow and consistent flow, as opposed to blocking up water.
Higgins said it was surprising to see how much the old dam’s wooden pillars had decayed.
“The most exciting thing was when we pulled it out, we saw how bad it was,” he said.
Crews used grappling hooks to pull apart the wooden catwalk and gates above the Whittenton Pond Dam’s concrete base. The machinery tore apart the beams and wooden planks and tossed them in nearby bins.
Troy Bissonnette, who lives approximately 800 yds. from the dam said he could hear construction noise all night. While he was glad crews were shoring up the dam, he said, “It should’ve been done 20 years ago.”
Whittenton Pond Dam, one of approximately 3,000 private dams in the state, dates to 1832. It was built to power a textile mill but no longer has any industrial purpose. The city last flooded in 1968, when the same dam broke.
The scare in this city prompted Gov. Mitt Romney to order emergency inspections of 186 dams that were deemed most likely to be dangerous.
Those inspections were completed Oct. 21, said Joe O’Keefe, chief of staff at the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.
“No unexpected or serious deficiencies were found by the inspectors,” O’Keefe said. “The only problems found were correctable … There were no Taunton-like situations uncovered.”
The 186 dams are among 320 considered to be “high hazard,” which refers to potential damage that could be caused by the dams’ failure, not the conditions of the dams. The rest of the 320 are considered to be in good condition, and will be inspected later.
O’Keefe said he didn’t have details of what the inspectors had found, other than the overall finding that no other dams are in danger of bursting.
He also didn’t know the timeline for inspections of the rest of the 320.
(Associated Press Writer Theo Emery contributed to this report from Boston.)