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Clean-up begins after Irene floods the region

Annie's Overflow Cafe in Plymouth the day after Irene. (Marcia Morris) (click for larger version)
August 31, 2011
REGION— "All in all, it's not too bad," said Campton resident Bobby Leroux. "It could have been a whole lot worse."

That sentiment was echoed all across the region on a bright, sunny, seasonably cool late summer Monday morning, as residents came out to survey the flood damage from Sunday night's visit from Tropical Storm Irene.

It was a day for gawking at stunning sights of severe flooding, the likes of which many could not recall for many years, but fortunately, our region made it through without injuries, although many businesses and homes will be cleaning up for weeks to come.

Bristol seems to have fared relatively well, spared the level of tragedy that it recently experienced during the infamous "Mother's Day Flood" of 2006 by a lowering of the lake level in anticipation of the storm. But five people fishing on the Pemi below Ayers Island Dam had to be rescued by local officials on Saturday afternoon during the resulting river swell. No one was injured in the incident.

Burger King on the Tenney Mountain Highway in Plymouth becomes an island. (Marcia Morris) (click for larger version)
Campton may have suffered the brunt of the storm surge, as up to 13 inches of rain in parts of the White Mountains made its way through the watershed, to the Mad River and the Pemigewasset. Five people had to be rescued on Sunday night in Thornton, just off Exit 29 on I-93, after they ignored public safety warning signs and tried to "navigate" their way across flooded roads that had been closed. A large pine tree, having fallen into the Pemi during the storm, appeared to have rushed downstream right at high water, ending up lodged in the middle of the historic Blair Bridge, damaging some of the beautiful timbers and closing the road to traffic proceeding at even "slower than a walk."

It was reported that the Turkey Jim Bridge in Campton was swept off its moorings and downriver. The Bump Bridge was closed due to erosion conditions on the access roads.

Bobby Leroux said that he and his family had heeded the advice of public safety officials and evacuated from their home below the Campton Dam in Six Flags Park long before the storm started. "We hunkered down the house, took the kids and headed off to higher ground," recounted Leroux.

He was glad that he did, but he also was feeling very grateful that everything was "basically all right" on Monday morning when he went to check on his house. He said there were a few houses in the area that had been affected, and several cars that had spent the night submerged under water.

"I was one of the lucky ones, I guess," said Leroux.

Plymouth landlord Doug McLane surveys South River Street flooding. (Marcia Morris) (click for larger version)
Upstream on the Mad River at the Campton Dam, mini-hydropower plant operator Mark Coulson was struggling mightily to get his facility cleaned out and back online. Sunday night had been a nightmare for him. A swollen Mad River had flooded Route 49, and was being shepherded back into its banks with stoplogs installed by Department of Public Works crews to divert the waters over the dam and away from the major traffic intersection at Route 175.

While crowds of local residents gathered to watch the spectacle, the Campton Dam overtopped at the site of the hydroplant. Coulson was racing to prevent the worst flood damage to the turbines and generators. Fortunately, despite some reports, the dam did not breach, but fears about the consequences of it giving way forced evacuations and road closures nearby that made it difficult for Coulson to get to the plant in time to restore power with a backup generator that could also fuel the sump pump at the plant.

By early Tuesday morning, Coulson was reporting that he had two of the three turbines back up and running again.

"From a public safety perspective, we did all right," said Coulson. "The fact that there was no loss of life or injuries is the thing that helped me to sleep last night. But from the perspective of how much work it is taking to deal with all the muck and mud and restore my business to operation, it was a disaster."

Coulson was certainly not alone in suffering a direct hit from Irene. Many area businesses suffered flood damage and loss of inventory in the wake of a 22-foot cresting of the Pemigewasset River just further south in Plymouth.

The only way to get around on Route 175 near the PSU Ice Arena on Monday morning was by boat. (Bruce Lyndes — Courtesy) (click for larger version)
Most local residents had always assumed that Annie's Overflow Restaurant, a popular breakfast and meeting spot in Plymouth, had been named for the long lines of eager customers waiting for a place to sit down for a pancake breakfast on a busy Sunday morning. But those with long historical memory know better. It has been many years, but this has all happened before.

As Plymouth resident Janet Moorhead stood gazing across a submerged Route 175 and the flooded fields by the Plymouth State University Field House and Ice Rink, she reflected on former floods.

The Moorheads have lived in Plymouth since the early 1970's, time enough to remember the two most recent occasions where the lowlands on the Holderness side of the Pemigewasset were inundated.

"This looks comparable to the flood of 1987," commented Moorhead. "We may have to put a new high water mark on the wall at the old Mobil station (now Citgo)."

Holderness Fire Chief Eleanor Mardin said that the Citgo and several other stores on the Holderness side of the river had suffered significant damage.

"Both the convenience stores are full of water. Everything that is in there is floating," said Mardin. "Annie's has been through the drill before. They will know just what to do."

The high water mark on Annie's Overflow was up to the flower window boxes, but had receded considerably by mid-morning on Monday. A loyal customer of the popular eatery lamented that the restaurant had just installed new carpeting just two weeks earlier.

Mardin also reported that there was water in the Plymouth State University Ice Rink; the Facilities Department at PSU was under several feet of water, and it was evident that the athletic fields had been temporarily transformed into a lake.

According to Mardin, this storm is one for the record books, coming fourth in line after the great flood of 1939 (memorialized by all those historic photographs on the walls at the Common Man Inn), which was the worst, with a 27-foot crest of the Pemi, followed by the floods of 1987 and 1973.

Holderness resident Mike McLaughlin wryly remarked, "It's really rather wet" — the understatement of the day — "but what a beautiful day we have. It is always a beautiful day after a storm."

McLaughlin was busy ferrying North River Street residents by canoe from the dry land near the Holderness side of the DiCenzo Bridge to the homes they had wisely evacuated about 6 p.m. the night before.

McLaughlin's parents were among those that had been forced to leave their home as flood waters steadily approached. He said that the water level was highest after 1 a.m., and had begun to recede by about 3 a.m. Reports of damage on South River Street were largely of basement flooding, with only a few homes seeing water reaching to the level of the first floor living space.

On South River Street, landlord Doug McLane was inspecting the scene where two of his properties were flooded.

"Unfortunately, the tenants had moved in on Saturday," said McLane.

McLane had acted proactively to try to protect his tenants' property, and to make sure that conditions were safe as the storm approached. He was worrying about contamination to local drinking water supplies, and about the potential danger that underground oil tanks might be wrenched from their moorings during the flooding and create the threat of an oil spill.

McLane, too, was reflective as he surveyed the damage.

"I've said this for years and years. This is not a case of Mother Nature going wild," remarked McLane. "It is a case of people building where houses just shouldn't be."

Hydrologists from the U.S. Geological Service Gage team were out measuring water levels and velocity of the Pemigewasset, to try to take advantage of the occasion to learn as much as possible about flooding conditions in the hopes presumably of helping to craft strategies to avoid flood damage in the future.

The wisdom of learning from previous experience was in ample evidence out on the Tenney Mountain Highway, where "moats" of Baker River floodwaters surrounded many recent businesses, including the new CVS pharmacy just going in at the intersection with Highland Street. Laconia Electric was flooded, but Burger King and Woodlands Credit Union built up above the floodplain in accordance with regulations fared much better.

The Merrifield family from Plymouth was out scouting about, looking at the flooding, taking pictures and trying to find a place to eat.

"Unfortunately, Annie's Overflow is overflowing today," commented Alan Merrifield.

Perhaps Burger King was a better bet.

"But it's not Burger King today," said his daughter Gwen. "Today, it is Burger Island."

Salmon Press
Martin Lord Osman
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