Rough Weekend; waters rise

B y Derek Liebig

Temperatures may have reached into the 70’s over the weekend but the affects of a long and snowy winter were still being felt as local residents deal with some of the worse flooding many have seen in years.

Water levels throughout Whitehall reached flood levels after several days of persistent rainfall and snow melt in northern areas of the region caused streams, rivers and lakes to swell and overflow their banks. 

“It’s pretty nasty. Iit’s unbelievable,” Supervisor Richard “Geezer” Gordon said.

On Monday afternoon, the Washington County Department of Public Safety brought in equipment to put in sandbags the area around The Line Townhouses on Lower Main Street and seven electric meters that were deemed unsafe due to rising waters were removed from homes. At 3 p.m., Tuesday, local officials declared a state of emergency.

Unfortunately, things may get worse before they get better.

“We’re receiving some disturbing reports of what the lake might do,” said Bill Cook, Washington County Director of Public Safety.

Cook said the forecast he received was calling for additional rain and wind from the north that may raise water levels higher than what they were over the weekend.

The National Weather Service issued a flood warning early Tuesday morning. The watch is in effect through Thursday morning as one to three inches could fall in the area.

Lake Champlain was cited as particularly susceptible because it remains flooded from last week.

The flood stage in Whitehall is 100 feet and water levels had reached 102.2 feet on Monday afternoon. Cook said some reports from Burlington predicted it was possible that the levels could reach 103 feet.

Cook said his department has been working with local officials, the police department, local fire companies, and the department of public works to develop a game plan in case water levels continue to rise.

He said the possibility exists that some people may have to be evacuated from their homes. The state of emergency will run for five days. Some residents also received a “Reverse 911” call Tuesday night warning them of the possibility of more flooding.

“If we have to move people, we will do so preeminently,” Cook said. “We have to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

He urged residents to keep an eye out for people living in low-lying areas and suggested people “keep their bags packed in case of a hasty retreat.”

Low-lying portions of the village, especially along North Main Street and North Williams Street sat under several feet of water as basements and in some cases first floors of people’s homes were inundated by rising waters.

Although no serious accidents were reported, the flooding did cause the closure of Lower Main Street and delayed the opening of the Canal as well as creating a great deal of inconvenience for residents.

Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company President Brian Brooks said the department had responded to several calls of flooded basements along Lower Main and North Williams Streets and evacuated four families from their homes as of Saturday.

He said the departments rescue boat was standing by Saturday morning, but members were able to safely remove those residents and some of their belongings with large trucks and hadn’t needed the use of the boat.

Despite fairly nice weather toward the end of last week, water began cresting its banks Thursday and Friday and reached its peak Saturday morning.

Whitehall student Abby Connors was among a group of people who gathered on North Main Street Friday evening to witness some of the flooding.

She said water levels had increased since that morning when she had drove by on her way to school.

“It’s gone up quite a bit,” she said.

A resident who lives in the townhouses on Lower Main Street braved the water Friday afternoon, moving his SUV through several feet of water.

As he returned with a bicycle and rubber boots, he said he had lived in the south and experienced hurricanes, but never a flood.

Elsewhere residents could be seen moving valuables from their yards before water could sweep them away or cause damage.

Marvin LaChapelle, who came to town to check on his father who lives along the canal on Lower Main Street, said his fathers heating unit was submerged underneath water in his basement and the water was only four or five inches from overflowing onto the first floor.

“This happens every year, but it’s usually not this bad,” he said. “I have seen it worse though.”

Whitehall Police Sergeant Richard LaChapelle was watching the Whitehall-Poultney baseball game Saturday afternoon when he received a phone call from his father who said water had crept onto the first floor of his North Williams Street home.

He said Monday the house will mostly likely need to be torn down.

Although Saturday was a clear sunny day, a strong wind from the north had created choppy water making flooding worse.

Unfortunately for local residents, there’s little that can be done.

Jeff Benjamin, who operates Champlain Coal, said he was able to open Monday and fortunately hadn’t noticed any damage.

He said they had secured their tanks within a fenced enclosure and were just hoping for the water to go down as they continued with business as usual.

“You just have to deal with,” he said. “There’s much you can do.”

“When it’s this high, you can’t pump it out,” Marvin LaChapelle said.

The Champlain Canal which was tentatively scheduled to open May 1 remained closed because of high waters. A new reopening date will be determined after water levels recede.

The flooding follows one of the most prolific winters in terms of snowfall in many years.

Although snow has melted in the immediate area, it continues to linger in northern areas of the state and above 2600 feet. With temperatures in those areas increasing and several days of rain saturating the ground, conditions were perfect for flooding.

Most residents said they’ve seen worse, notably in 1977, but admitted this is the worse in several years.

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