LEOMINSTER — The day after torrential rain caused “catastrophic” flooding in this central Massachusetts city, washing out roads and train tracks and leaving much of the downtown underwater, officials rushed to shore up dams threatened by the rising water and warned that the damage could take months to repair.
At the end of a summer that brought heavy rainfall and severe floods to New England, as much as 11 inches of rain fell Monday and Tuesday on this hilly city about 40 miles northwest of Boston, with a chance of more on Wednesday. The deluge caused rivers to overflow, closed more than two dozen roads, and forced evacuations throughout the night with “hovercrafts and boats,” Mayor Dean Mazzarella said at a news conference Tuesday.
“It affected every single section of the city,” he said. “No one escaped this.”
Governor Maura Healey on Tuesday night declared a state of emergency, citing “severe property damage” and flash flooding in Worcester and Bristol counties. The emergency declaration marked her second in the span of five weeks — the first was in response to the state’s overwhelmed shelter system — and will allow the state to “mobilize our resources” and help secure federal assistance for the recovery, Healey said.
A host of surrounding towns along Route 2 and into New Hampshire faced flooding as well, while along the Rhode Island border, some 200 homes in North Attleborough were damaged.
“I just listened to the story of a woman who had never seen any flooding on her property, ever, and had 6 feet of water in just a couple of hours last night,” Healey, who visited North Attleborough to survey the damage, said earlier Tuesday. “Devastating. Six feet. That’s our reality right now.”
Healey said the devastation included downed trees, power outages, and heavy damage, including to homes, dams, and train tracks.
”I’m going to bring to bear everything that we can in terms of state resources to help with the cleanup and help residents get back on their feet,” she said. “We’re going to pull out all the stops and do everything we can to get relief to people.”
Mazzarella said crews were surveying the damage, which he estimated would run to millions of dollars and take months to repair. Road crews fanned out across the city, the state’s emergency management agency deployed thousands of sand bags, and scores of people forced from their homes took shelter at local schools, which were closed.
“It’s a miracle that people made it — that we haven’t had any fatalities,” Mazzarella said. “We found vehicles off the side of the road where the road had caved in. We’ve been extremely fortunate.”
Early Tuesday morning, city officials urged residents who live near Barrett Park to “immediately evacuate,” fearing that a dam there could give way. The 150-foot dam, which creates a nearly 9-acre pond, is in poor condition and in 2021 received a $163,500 grant for repairs.
“The safest thing right now is to evacuate people from those homes should something happen to that dam,” Mazzarella said.
But later in the day, city officials said people could return to their homes. Healey said two dams threatened by the high water had been shored up or would be by day’s end.
The Barrett Park Pond Dam, an earthen embankment about 15 feet high, was built in the 1800s, state officials said. It is classified as a “significant hazard” and was found to be in poor condition when it was last inspected in November 2021.
On Tuesday, inspectors from the Department of Conservation and Recreation found that the dam had “suffered serious damage” in the storm, prompting the evacuation order, the agency said in a statement. During the day, city and state specialists worked “on immediate solutions to repair the damaged area” and stabilize the barrier, the agency said.
Near Barrett Park on Tuesday, a giant sinkhole had swallowed up a front yard, and neighbors looked at the precarious house with concern.
”It’s completely ready to fall,” said Brianna Boutelle, 31. “The whole foundation of the house.”
Around 8:30 on Monday night, Boutelle grabbed a flashlight to warn drivers and stop them from going through the “massive puddle” that had formed on Colburn Street, near where the sinkhole opened up.
“Nobody had any clue on where to go,” she said. “Roads were blocked off everywhere.”
On Tuesday, the water had receded but a thin layer of brown sand and silt coated the road. Boutelle said part of the street is prone to flooding, but she’s never seen so much damage.
”I’ve lived here 31 years and this is the worst we’ve ever seen it,” she said. “The water’s got to go somewhere. But I mean with how much we got, it just had nowhere to go.”
On Main Street, a sinkhole swallowed several vehicles at a car dealership and water rushed through the building, exposing rocks and earth beneath. On Tuesday, a crane was lifting cars that had fallen in.
Along Mechanic Street, a large section of sidewalk had collapsed into the Monoosnoc Brook, its normally placid waters turned into a raging river.
At the Fix Burger Bar, the water level had reached about chest-high on the building’s ground floor, said Bill Hannigan, who owns a business next door.
”We need some help,” he said.
Jan Gonynor, who was getting ready to open up Brady’s restaurant across from the collapsed sidewalk, said her business was somehow spared from flood damage she described as unprecedented.
”Unbelievable,” she said. “We’re never had anything like this before. Ever.”
At a commuter rail station in Leominster, flooding washed away an embankment under a section of the railway, halting service to part of the Fitchburg Line.
Emergency shelters were set up at two local schools. Luca Calvani, the Red Cross disaster program manager for Central Massachusetts, said no one was injured.
“We’re only making sure that people’s needs are met,” Calvani said.
Along Lancaster Street, large sections of roadway were washed away and thick, sticky silt caked along the pavement and across lawns. At least two homes were badly damaged, including one where part of the foundation had failed under a garage, sending an SUV tumbling several feet.
The yard and driveway of the home next door were also destroyed, making it difficult to reach the front door. Crews helped residents from both homes recover some of their property before leaving the neighborhood around noon. Residents said that at the height of the storm, torrents of water flowed down the street like a river.
“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Lancaster Street resident Maureen Clapp.
In North Attleborough, Town Manager Michael Borg said the area was hit by about “5 inches of rain in a span of three to four hours,” and public works crews were busy repairing roads and culverts.
#Leominster - Due to a potential issue at the Barrett Park Pond Dam, persons in low-lying areas of the Fall Brook tributary to Fall Brook along Central St, Fall Brook & the North Nashua River, should evacuate & safely leave the area. Shelter is available at Skyview Middle School.— MEMA (@MassEMA) September 12, 2023
MEMA staff have been on-scene in #Leominster since last night supporting the local flood response & coordinating requests for assistance, including 3,000 sandbags, additional shelter staff, traffic sign boards & shelter equipment to support residents with disabilities. #ThisIsEM pic.twitter.com/uQbmYQhlUQ— MEMA (@MassEMA) September 12, 2023
Conditions were challenging in New Hampshire, too.
Authorities in Nashua were closely watching the Nashua River, where rain was pushing it to a dangerous level. The city received 2 to 4 inches of rain Monday, saturating the ground, and is expecting another inch on Wednesday, officials said.
”Tomorrow is going to be another big day,” said Stephen Baron, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service.
Rescue teams in Nashua worked through Monday night helping people who were stranded in their cars.
“Our infrastructure was a bit overwhelmed because of the speed of the rain,” said Fire Chief Steve Buxton. Smaller streams and brooks flooded yards, but no one was forced to evacuate, he said.
The weather service said subtropical moisture would bring more “soaking rains” to parts of Southern New England on Wednesday, with a flood watch in effect for most of Massachusetts from 11 a.m. Wednesday until 7 a.m. Thursday.
An additional 1 to 2 inches of rain is possible during that window and as much as 4 inches could fall in some spots.
“Excessive runoff may result in flooding of streets, urban areas, as well as low-lying, poor drainage and flood-prone locations,” the weather service tweeted.
Travis Andersen, Amanda Gokee, and Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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