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Maine has been hit by an unusually high number of flash floods this summer, straining small towns

Flood damage on
Murray Carpenter
Maine Public
Flood damage on Woodman Hill Road in Jay, Maine.

Maine has been hit by an unusually high number of flash floods this summer. These events could become more common as the climate warms. And they are placing strains on small town public works departments.

The rain that fell in Jay and Dixfield one night in late June was unusual. The storm sat in one area, and dumped about 6 inches of rain in just a few hours. The ground was already saturated from weeks of rain. Creeks rose quickly, and over-topped several roads.

Standing by a washed-out road in Jay, public works director John Johnson says he’s never seen anything like it in his 66 years.

“Trees like that would fall in and they’d sit there no more than three or four seconds and they was downstream so fast you hardly ever knew they fell, the power of the water took everything. you could watch them go," he says.

Now there’s a 25-foot-deep hole where the road used to be. And this is just one of several roads in Jay that are still closed a month after the storm.

Johnson has amassed a thick folder documenting the damage from two storms — which could top $8 million — for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And he says this work is an added burden to the already stretched public works department.

“There's ten of us," he says. "We're responsible to operate the transfer station. We haul our trash to the landfill in Norridgewock. We haul out recyclables — tires, metals — all around the state, different places. They got rid of the buildings and grounds department a few years ago. We keep nine cemeteries, three ball fields, two parks, and some open space mowed, town office lawn, police department lawn, a lot of lawns to mow. And the upkeep of 70 miles of road.”

Making things even harder is the fact that the paper mill that has been at the heart of Jay for over a century finally shut down this year.

Jay Town Manager Shiloh LaFreniere says recent storms have been expensive.

"To have this kind of impact that you’re not planning on, that you don’t have budgets prepared for, these million-dollar storms happening," she says. "And then you’re suddenly scurrying to figure out how do we make this all work?”

And LaFreniere says she expects more extreme weather as the climate warms.

“Last spring we had a storm that did a lot of hail damage in town," she says. "This summer it’s the other half of the town with water damage. And you’re just seeing it everywhere now. So I think that it would be sticking our heads in the sand to say it’s not happening, and this was it, and it won’t happen again.”

Scientists confirm that this year has been an extreme anomaly for flash flood warnings. Donny Dumont, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Grey, says 73 warnings have been issued through July, as compared to the previous high of just 45 for the full year of 1998. He says many factors have to line up to produce these events.

“Slow storm motion, well-above normal moisture, numerous days of moisture, day after day, meaning your soil moisture becomes above normal, meaning that you have more rapid runoff because you are saturated already," Dumont says.

And Dumont says the warm, moist air that is becoming more common as the climate changes could lead to more such events. But he says that trend is not yet clear in the flash-flood warning data.

Nevertheless, the Maine Department of Transportation says it is advising towns to invest in larger culverts. Joyce Taylor, the DOT'S chief engineer, says it's clear that these heavy, localized storms are becoming more frequent.

"We're getting to the point where we're preparing to have certain size culverts available at all times, just so we can make sure we have something on hand in case we get one of these storm events," Taylor says. "We never thought like that before. But we've seen enough over the last, I'd say five years, where we've had to go in and it's a very localized storm but they get 4 to 6 inches of rain in a really short amount of time."

Meanwhile, some local residents are frustrated by the road problems.

Donna Jean Buckley lives in neighboring Dixfield next to a bridge that washed out in the same June storm, and has been having to go to town to pick up her mail for a month.

Flood damage at a bridge on Rollins Ridge Road in Dixfield, Maine.
Murray Carpenter
Maine Public
Flood damage at a bridge on Rollins Ridge Road in Dixfield, Maine.

"Somebody's going to get hurt. I'm telling you right now, somebody is going to get hurt coming down these roads, and I just hope ain't me," Buckley says.

She’s frustrated that repairs aren't happening more quickly, and feels the estimated construction costs seem inflated.

"Yeah, we choose to live on the mountain, I get it, you know what I mean? A life is life," Buckley says. "But you know what, when the roads wash out, and everyone is worried about money?"

Back in Jay, Public Works Director John Johnson is hoping to at least get some temporary bridges in place soon to allow school busses and ambulances to get around town more efficiently. But he worries that this year's storms may be a glimpse of things to come.

"Oh I think everybody hopes this it's an outlier but I don't think anyone believes it is," Johnson says. "I think these storms are getting worse and they are coming more frequently, all you can do is try to stay out ahead of them."

Then he heads off for a meeting to discuss town roads.

Murray Carpenter is Maine Public’s climate reporter, covering climate change and other environmental news.