PEABODY — In heavy rain, Peabody Square can look more like a lake than the heart of the downtown business district.
At high tide, storm runoff backs up in underground streams because it can’t flow into the North River, a tidal basin that empties into Salem Sound. The square and surrounding streets often have filled with several feet of water, forcing businesses to close.
Following the Mother’s Day flood in May 2006, then-mayor Michael Bonfanti estimated that 200 downtown businesses had been affected. Adding in storms that occurred in 1996, 1998, 2001, and 2004, Bonfanti estimated that the flooding had cost Peabody at least $130 million in repair costs and “lost economic opportunity.”
Downtown escaped damage from a June nor’easter and Hurricane Sandy last fall, but a deluge in October 2011 flooded businesses and homes around Peabody Square. The flooding prompted Bonfanti — who served five terms before deciding not to seek reelection in 2011 — to propose a major project to repair storm-water culverts.
But Mayor Ted Bettencourt said he is not yet ready to commit to a $20-plus million, five-year project to install two culverts under the square to carry more floodwater into the river.
“I’m getting conflicting information as to whether that project would work,” Bettencourt said. “It would not address the tidal issue. I’m concerned about making that type of investment, and there is no guarantee that it’s going to work.”
The project also would require shutting down parts of Peabody Square during stages of the work.
“It’s a massive decision,” Bettencourt said. “I hope to decide by the end of this year.”
He noted smaller projects — such as clearing debris and vegetation from the brooks and streams — aim to reduce, if not eliminate, the flooding.
A $2.5 million retention pond, planned for the area behind Higgins Middle School off King Street, will hold 2.7 million gallons of water when it is completed later this year, Bettencourt said. “That water now won’t be coming into downtown,” he said.
Some merchants said the improvements have helped to control flooding.
“I think what the city is doing to mitigate it has really helped,” said Billy Woods of P.J. Woods Insurance, a four-generation, family-owned business on Main Street. “I think there’s a misconception about flooding here. Not every business has had to close.”
“I’ve been here for 30 years,” said Alan Forbes, owner of Sports Collectibles, which sells jerseys, hats, and other merchandise.
“I think we’ve only had to close for five days because of water.”