Updated: Athol ice jam damages bridge; forces limited evacuation

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

  • Ice buildup below the South Main Street bridge in Athol Saturday morning. For the Recorder/Mike Phillips

  • Travis Brailey pumps water out of the flooded basement of a home on Walnut Street in Athol as local Fire Departments respond to flooding along the Millers River on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Flood waters from the Millers River approach Morton Meadows apartments in Athol on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

For the Gazette
Published: 1/13/2018 1:11:47 PM

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. on Jan. 14, 2018.

ATHOL – Seventy-year-old Jim Herbert was one of many Athol residents who lined both sides of the South Main Street Bridge Saturday afternoon, amazed by the massive shards of ice jamming the Millers River as far as the eye could see.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Herbert, who has lived in Athol since the first grade.

After a mass of ice broke free from the river early Saturday morning raising flooding concerns, the 26 occupied apartments at the Morton Meadows elderly housing complex were evacuated, according to Morton Meadows Director Christi Martin and Town Manager Shaun Suhoski. Water came just a few feet from the building closest to the river, though there have not been any reports of injury to residents or safety personnel throughout town.

By 6 p.m., Suhoski said, all residents had either found overnight shelter with loved ones or at hotels, or were provided accommodations through the Salvation Army in conjunction with United Way. Some residents temporarily found shelter at the emergency holding area and feeding center set up in the basement of Town Hall.

“There’s a lot of tenants who are sick or disabled,” said Martin, who accompanied the residents to Town Hall. “It was hard on them today.”

Lt. Michael Buzzard of the Salvation Army’s Athol Corps, which oversaw the evacuation center, said the Salvation Army arranged for residents with special needs and medical conditions to stay in nursing homes, and transported them there if needed.

Though Suhoski said there are no plans to open a formal shelter as the risk is limited to very specific properties, Martin and Buzzard agreed her residents may remain evacuated for days.

All residents, Martin said, were told to retrieve any medications during the evacuation, and Buzzard said the Salvation Army is prepared to provide them with clean clothes. Still, some residents were left feeling unprepared.

Sitting in Town Hall, Barbara McLaren, 64, recounted the morning of confusion that saw her leaving her Morton Meadows apartment without a toothbrush or clean clothes.

“You don’t really have time to breathe,” Martin agreed about the unexpectedly hectic day.

As of 4 p.m., McLaren hadn’t decided where she would spend the night out of concern for her 14-year-old Poodle mix Buddy.

“If my dog can’t go, I can’t go,” she said. McLaren said she’d likely seek a hotel in Gardner or Greenfield once she could find a comfortable home for Buddy.

Causing damage

The initial rush of ice Saturday morning affected more than just Morton Meadows. It is believed that ice near the L.S. Starrett impoundment let go at around 7 a.m.

“It’s an unusual occurrence for ice to break in the manner that it did,” said Athol Police Chief Russell Kleber.

Soon after, the rapidly rising mass of ice was witnessed striking the Exchange Street Bridge by Department of Public Works Superintendent Douglas Walsh and a police officer, Suhoski said.

Officials decided to close the Exchange Street Bridge after the ice swept several “hangars” that secure a 10-inch water main to the bridge’s underside downstream, Suhoski continued. A portion of the water main was shut-down as a precaution, but no customers were impacted, he said.

The bridge was closed to traffic out of concerns of unseen structural damage, and Suhoski said the Massachusetts Department of Transportation will inspect the bridge before the road is reopened.

From the Exchange Street Bridge, the ice jam migrated to the area between the South Main Street Bridge and the town’s wastewater treatment plant, Suhoski said. The DPW advised the plant is experiencing very high flow, but that all systems are currently secure.

Dealing with the aftermath

The prime focus of safety personnel, Suhoski said, is the stretch of the Millers River from the South Main Street Bridge to a bend and sand bar roughly a half-mile west, where large chunks of ice are clogging the river and backing up water.

At around 3 p.m., firefighters from the Athol, Royalston and Petersham fire departments could be seen removing water from the lower levels of homes on Canal Street and laying down sandbags to hold back any future flooding. As temperatures dropped, the spewing water created large frozen puddles in the residents’ backyards.

Meanwhile, all roads into Morton Meadows were barricaded. Buzzard said that in addition to helping evacuated residents, the Salvation Army will provide coffee and dinner to first responders.

Relief efforts involved many different organizations, including the Salvation Army, the Athol-Orange Housing Authority, the Athol Fire Department and Athol town staff.

The Massachusetts State Police air wing also flew reconnaissance along the branches of the Millers and Tully rivers to pinpoint areas of concern, Suhoski said.

The town notified neighboring and downstream communities, Suhoski said. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers at Birch Hill Dam is limiting the river’s flow and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency is standing by to assist.

Remembering flooding

Near the South Main Street Bridge, flooding visibly impacted one home on the riverbank that saw water rise about one foot up the garage door.

On the other side of the bridge, Raymond Place residents and brothers Richard Dzeima, 47, and Dennis Dzeima, 50, experienced flooding in their backyard. High water levels, though, didn’t phase the two.

“The water comes up, but never the ice,” Dennis Dzeima said.

“We’ve had water about as high as this when we were scared and ready to leave, but never ice like this,” Richard Dzeima added.

The brothers have lived on Raymond Place for 40 years and have seen plenty of days of high water. On Saturday, Dennis Dzeima needed to retrieve his motorcycle, which was in the backyard, from underwater.

“I’ve seen this many times,” agreed Pete Gerry, 68, of Athol. “They’ve evacuated several times.”

Gerry, who said he’s lived in Athol all his life, recounted how “30 or 40 years ago, they’d dynamite” the lodged ice.

Looking down from the South Main Street Bridge, Gerry pointed out the logs and tree limbs the ice had picked up along the riverbank. Once the ice washes away, he said, all the debris will be cleared.

“Mother nature is pruning its riverbanks,” he said.

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