Ice jams keep damaged Athol bridge, threatened housing complex closed

  • Ice jams cause the Millers River to flood at the South Main Street bridge in Athol on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Ice jams cause the Millers River to flood at the South Main Street bridge in Athol on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Ice builds up along the Millers River at the South Main Street bridge in Athol on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

For the Gazette
Published: 1/14/2018 11:34:11 PM

ATHOL — While the Exchange Street Bridge remained barricaded to vehicle traffic Sunday, a small crowd stood on the bridge, taking pictures and peering down at the ice-laden river, its banks strewn with chunks of ice.

Before being allowed to reopen, the extent of damage to the bridge must be inspected by the Department of Transportation, according to Fire Chief John Duguay, who also acts as the town’s emergency management director. Duguay said that the bridge will not be open any sooner than Tuesday, but residents may have to wait longer; an official estimate isn’t clear.

A mass of ice broke free along the Millers River early Saturday morning, causing the initial rush of ice to sweep away several “hangars” securing a 10-inch water main underneath the Exchange Street Bridge. A portion of the main was shut down, but no customers have been affected, according to a statement by the town of Athol.

According to Duguay, the river dropped 3 to 4 feet by Sunday. There is still concern about ice jams building up downstream. Another concern is “frazil,” which is the slush-like mass that builds up on top of the river when the outdoor temperature is in the 20s or below. Frazil is the first stage in river ice formation, and it could be seen piling up downstream from the bridge.

In addition to bridge damage, the 28-unit Morton Meadows housing complex was evacuated Saturday as a precaution since the river passes directly behind the complex.

Evacuated residents have been placed with family, friends, in a nursing home or in lodging by the Salvation Army, Athol-Orange Housing Authority and United Way.

Public safety, public works and housing officials met Sunday morning to assess the status of ice jams and the potential threat to the complex, said town manager Shaun Suhoski in a statement.

Morton Meadows was deserted and quiet as of Sunday morning. Some apartments still had sandbags outside of them.

Local officials will monitor a planned release of water from the Tully and Birch Hill dams upstream during the daytime on Sunday and Monday.

“The release of water is being managed by the Army Corps of Engineers and town officials are closely coordinating efforts with corps staff,” said Suhoski.

Officials will monitor the effects of flooding and continue to perform routine checks at key choke points. The team will meet Monday morning with hopes of allowing Morton Meadows residents to return to their complex, but no return date has been made official.

Duguay warned all town residents to stay away from the river since conditions can change rapidly.

“The release of water will cause fluctuations to the level and flow in the river,” he said. “Residents may hear the ice shifting and cracking and should be extremely cautious.”

This was the case behind Morton Meadows. Ice shifting and cracking in the river behind the apartments sounded like glass breaking. The river was still full of thick, white slabs of ice, some of which made their way up to the fence that separates the riverbank and the paved road behind the houses.

There have been no reports of injuries related to the ice jams, according to Duguay.

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