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Looking Back at Irene: Washed Out

04:14PM / Monday, August 27, 2012
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A hole that opened at on East Road at the top of Lime Street cut off one of only two roads north.

The Friday before the storm, officials in the town of Adams were watching it move up the coast. They were prepared. They had seen floods before.

But they didn't expect that Hurricane Irene would destroy one of the only two roads leading out of town north or that the Columbia Street brook would flood every basement or that every major road in Adams would be shut down. And they certainly weren't expecting they would have to rescue the entire Charles Street neighborhood.

"We didn't really know what to expect. Aside from a good thunderstorm in the summer, we don't have a lot of extreme weather here. We deal with winter storms but we know how to handle winter storms even if they are bad. This was sort of a new animal," Town Administrator Jonathan Butler said recently. "Saturday was a like a day on edge."

Friday, the emergency management team met, reviewed their plans and rolls. They released public service announcements telling the town where to find shelter and that the storm was looking to come in on Sunday.

Wind was what they were expecting but water is what they got.

"It happened fast. The shelter opened at like quarter to six in the morning and it had been raining. By about 7:30, we started to have our first reports of bizarre weather," Butler said. "It was a combination of the flooding of the brook on Davis and Charles Street that blew out the culvert, blew out the bridge and severed eight homes and about 40 people from the town with a raging, dangerous river separating them."

The Fire Department and Police Department started evacuating the neighborhood, even using personal vehicles to bus people to the shelter at Adams Memorial Middle School. Meanwhile, a report came in that East Road had collapsed.

Fire Chief Paul Goyette had to work with North Adams officials to plan emergency response. The Fire Department had all hands on deck and responded to 133 calls in 30 hours. Goyette was prioritizing the calls on a giant white board in the Fire station. Firefighters were working in shifts to handle the volume of calls — a day that began at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday didn't end until 1 p.m. on Monday.

"The first ones were right around 8 o'clock in the morning and they went right through the morning. The brook behind Columbia Street housing went over. That was a big deal because we had people's basements flooding all along the brick blocks flooding. The Pine Street brook, which is the upper part of that brook, there was debris that clogged it and started flooding into people's yard," Butler said. "Simultaneously to that, the Davis Street, Charles Street flooding was happening. Simultaneously to that the upper East Road — after the culvert on Lime Street - we had an issue where two culverts went out and we had water coming down the mountain and that road was compromised. Simultaneously to that, we were very concerned with the water levels in the flood control channel."

Goyette said planning and coordination was critical to the town's response.
"We were prepared as a community," he said. "I think that was huge. Do I want to see that again, no."

Meanwhile officials are monitoring the levels of the Hoosac River. The flood control chutes filled to only 6 feet below the brim and Tophet Brook was on the verge of spilling over.

"I swear that I saw that during the day it was a foot from the brim. We were really concerned with if that went over because there are houses right there, there is Russell Field. It was going to be an interesting set of circumstances if that happened," Butler said, and added that water near the Cook Street bridge was roaring so fast that it was "shooting projectiles" onto the bridge.

Police were trying to keep residents off of bridges and off of the roads. The police shut down every major road. The Department of Public Works was going back and forth between culverts and bridges with an excavator to clean out the river.

Thomas Satko, superintendent of public works, said trying to keep the drains and culverts free of debris was a herculean task.

"What would happen sometimes is you would unplug it but you kind of had to stay there because in another 10 or 15 minutes stuff would flow down and plug it again," he said, adding, "I've lived by the Hoosic all my life ... and this is the highest I've ever seen it."

The Water Department crews tried to help but had to deal with a water line break on Summer Street.

In the late afternoon emergency personnel had a sigh of relief when they saw the waters started to recede.

"That was one of those days I'll never forget," Butler said.

However the work was not done. Satko said he has spent the majority of his work in the last year documenting and repairing the damage.

"You almost had to walk every river to see what was done ... you didn't know," he said. "It was challenging to find out if it was damage the town was going to care of or if it was going to be the property owner."

Like many towns, the Selectmen approved deficit spending to immediately begin repairs but even now, the Charles Street Bridge that severed that neighborhood from the rest of the town has not been repaired.

Goyette and Assistant Fire Chief John Pansecchi both agreed that the damage along Lime Street that undermined the bridge was the worst.

"The sights I saw on Lime Street will stay with me forever," said Pansecchi.

"Davis Street actually became part of the river, it actually just detoured over there and went down the street. ... You hear about [this damage] on TV but to witness it — shocking."

The desire to witness by many of the residents shook Goyette.

"Everybody wanted to see the water running, you had people doing silly things," he said. "People standing on bridges and holding their children over to see the water rushing. ... Those kind of things were really scary."

Satko said, "I don't remember what day the storm was on ... it's kind of like a blur sometimes."

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