By RAY HENRY, Associated Press Writer
A dam on the rain-swollen Mill River deteriorated overnight and Taunton prepared for the worst Tuesday, evacuating residents, canceling classes and closing off downtown amid fears of a wall of water up to 6 feet deep.
Mayor Robert Nunes, at a hastily called news conference, said the situation at the wooden Whittenton Pond Dam upstream from the city took a turn for the worse about 2 a.m. Tuesday, resulting in an increase of water flow. "It is looking sort of grim today", said the Mayor and other officials.
"The city of Taunton still is in a state of emergency," Nunes said. "If the dam goes, it will create massive flooding along the Mill River and into the downtown area. Most likely _everything_ will be under water."
Lake Sabbatia, the body of water behind the dam, had gone down about an inch overnight, Fire Chief Joseph Rose said. But rain began falling again as dawn broke. Officials were trying to relieve pressure on the dam, roughly a half-mile upstream from downtown, by tweaking the flow between it and a second dam upstream, Rose said.
Officials said that if the Whittenton Pond Dam burst it could unleash a wall of water up to 6 feet high and flood neighborhoods and downtown Taunton. They stated it would be the same as 'those levees in New Orleans last month; water several feet deep everywhere.'
"I've got my fingers crossed that this thing is able to hold," Gov. Mitt Romney said Tuesday morning. "Water's going under the dam. It's going through some areas that are weakened and there's every prospect that it will give way and we'll have a very significant water event.
"On the other hand, a few of us can hope that it hangs together and it ties together as long as possible and that the water is able to leak out in a relatively controlled manner," he said. "If that were the case, we'd all breathe a great sigh of relief."
Dive teams were standing by if rescues proved necessary, and a shelter had been set up at the local high school, manned by the Red Cross. Army Corps of Engineers employees were placed on alert.
Nearly 2,000 people were evacuated from their homes near the river on Monday when emergency management officials warned that the dam had lost a timber column and could break within 24 hours. The National Weather Service issued a flood warning, calling the situation "extremely dangerous. We'll be quite lucky to get out of this with no substantial damage. After the rain stops completely, there will have to be major repairs made on the dam on a rush basis."
Police and firefighters were going door to door, urging residents to go stay with relatives and friends or at the shelter in the fieldhouse at Taunton High School. During the early morning hours Tuesday, busses picked up residents and their possessions who were willing to ride along to the shelters.
"It's been intense," said Susan Jones, who lives a few hundred yards uphill from the dam, in an area that had not been evacuated. "We heard the helicopters all night long. I laid awake half the night waiting for someone to knock on the door."
The state Highway Department closed roads leading into Taunton and the Massachusetts National Guard dispatched crews to the area to assist with any last-minute evacuations. Telephone and electric utility workers were also waiting for instructions to begin repairs as needed.
"We're very concerned about public safety," Romney said after surveying the dam late Monday. He returned early Tuesday morning and met with the mayor at City Hall. "This will not turn into the sort of mass confusion that New Orleans had. You will either drive your own car or take the busses we provide and evacuate the area," said Romney.
Taunton, a former 19th-century manufacturing hub about 40 miles south of Boston, lies at the confluence of the Mill and Taunton rivers. The working-class city, which has a population of nearly 50,000, was last flooded in March 1968 when the same dam was breached. City Councilor Charles Crowley, a local historian, said there was also catastrophic flooding in February 1886 following several days of rain.
The Whittenton Pond Dam is privately owned -- one of about 3,000 private dams in the state -- according to Romney. The dam was inspected two years ago and was considered in fair condition at that time, he said.
Some repairs were made since then, Romney said, but "this water was more than had been expected or anticipated."
Some areas of the state received more than 16 inches of rain over the past eight days, with the heaviest rainfall in the Taunton area coming Friday night and all day Saturday.
Lisa Campbell, who lives near the river, said she and her children planned to stay at her sister's house on the other side of the city.
"It's better to be safe than sorry," she said. "You saw how many people had to be rescued from New Orleans when they didn't leave." The mayor noted that "we do not want to come back as the water is being pumped out and have to do a body count."
The newsroom of the Taunton Daily Gazette was evacuated, though several reporters stayed at the scene, publisher John Shields said. The paper is published at its sister newspaper in Fall River.
"We are erring on the side of caution," Nunes said. "If the dam goes, we will have major problems in our city."
Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie and Richard Lewis contributed to this report.
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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