Storm of the century inundates Melrose

... hundreds evacuated -- cost may reach six million

by SilverStringer Don Norris

It wasn't exactly the story of Noah and the ark, but what happened in Melrose draws some very close parallels.

According to Mayor Rob Dolan, those thirteen days of rain -- yes, thirteen -- cost the people "somewhere between three and six million dollars". That means dollars spent on loss of goods to homeowners, damage to homes, costs of supplies, worktime put in by regular and emergency crews, displacement of some 700 Melrose residents from their homes, rental of shelter for those displaced ...

The sequence of the storm ...

The story begins with five days of rain in early May -- a minor story that few can recall  -- which taxed the drainage and sewerage systems in town, soaked the ground and set the city up for a terrible blow. There was only a brief respite of a few sunny days before eastern New England was hit by two converging, powerful storm systems that collided right over Boston.

Melrose seems to have gotten the worst of it, but damage was similarly heavy in the nearby towns of Winchester, Saugus, Malden -- even as far away as Haverhill where the Merrimack overflowed its banks.

Melrose had no rivers to contend with, but the center of town sits in a valley, where some half of our 10,000 homes are located. The torrential, driving rains of that second storm pelted the city for eight continuous days. The second half began on a Sunday -- with the drainage system already full from the earlier storm -- and the crisis began that night. By Monday morning homeowners were getting significant water in basements, drain covers were being lifted off by the force of the over-loaded system.

Then Ell Pond overflowed its banks.

The water collected at the low point of the Lynn Fells Parkway, in front of the old/new high school and the construction of the new middle school. It rose over the tennis courts eastward to the intersection of Melrose Street, making the Knoll an island. As it collected there, it began pouring rapidly into the lower Melrose Towers complex, and spread over the parking lot of the nearby strip mall. At the peak of the storm, there was eleven feet of water around the three high-rise Tower buildings.

Mayor Dolan said that he, Fire Chief John O'Brien, Police Chief Richard Morrissey and the head of the Department of Public Works Bob Beshara made the decisions to evacuate both the Towers and the senior residents at the Steele House on Greenwood Street. The criteria was based on water reaching into electric systems, with the fear of electrocution and possible fire. Another key figure was Ed Kelly, director of the Melrose Emergency Management, which was literally put to the test and came through creditably.

At one point these men realized that they had been working straight for forty hours.

The evacuation begins ...

In many cases firefighters carried elderly out of inundated homes, on their backs. At the Towers, the State Police sent huge tracked vehicles to rescue stranded residents. There was a time when those huge tractors were actually floating. Boats were brought in to rescue many residents at that complex. Officers were placed to guard against the potential for looting -- and to discourage residents from re-entering evacuated buildings.

There was a mentally challenged youngster in one house almost to the Greenwood line who panicked when a rescuer tried to carry her through the rising water to safety. In the end it took four men to get her into the boat, but the rescue was made.

Along the parkway, three people had abandoned their cars. Before long two of those cars literally floated away before becoming gorged with water. Several others were towed out, if wreckers could reach them.

A mile away, on Heywood Avenue, Mayor Dolan's wife Alison called to report that water was pouring into their cellar. Shortly thereafter Mrs. Dolan and their son Ryan were evaculated to relatives in nearby Saugus. Many homes in that area, off Damon Avenue, were abandoned.

Another low point was on West Wyoming Avenue, by Conant Field. Many homes were left without heat or electricity as water rose in their cellars, and the residents had to seek shelter with relatives or friends.

Residents flocked downtown to Whittemore's Hardware in search of sump pumps, and a line began to form, but stock did not last long. Braving the storm, Whittemore's found a supply in New Hampshire and saved the day for many Melrosians. (See several of the eye-witness reports in the Storm Section below).

"I can't say enough for MMTV," Mayor Dolan said. "The cable television provided much needed communications to local homeowners, keeping them abreast of the rising waters, giving hints on how to survive, pointing out the dangers."  The mayor appeared regularly on local TV, offering help, instructions and support. The problem was that many homes were left in darkness as rising water shorted out electrical systems.

At the school construction site ...

The schools were closed for three days, although none of them was badly damaged. When the rains finally ceased, the SilverStringers went out to record the damage; at one point I climbed to the top of the football stadium, and could see that Ell Pond was lapping at the steel frame of the new gymnasium. A big front end loader was wading axle deep through the water.

This photo was taken from the same spot atop the bleachers from which we pictured the demoliton of the old 1933 Melrose High, last December. By May 16 the slab for the new middle school (visible in the distance) had been laid, and the heavy rain ceased.

I could see that the water level had climbed to within three and a half feet of the top of the new slab -- which is being constructed seven feet higher than the basement floor of the old high school. Mayor Dolan smiled and said that the entire plan worked perfectly, throughout the site. He mentioned a million dollars to make repairs -- had the city chosen to stay with the old high school.

The football field, baseball diamond and practice fields were all under water. Over on the other side of the railroad tracks, at Messenger's Meadow by the new Roosevelt School, the water had risen almost to the basketball rim. But here, however, was a serious problem of overflowing sewerage. The mayor was quick to note that contractors had all ready been hired to rebuild and sanitize the field.

"This has been happening for years," he said, "and it gets cleaned every time. It will be safe to use when the professionals get done with it."

The drainage system ...

Ell Pond basically reclaimed it's size when Melrose was established 300 years ago. Yet within three or four days after the rain stopped, the water level receded.

"The major problem was with overflowing sewerage systems, a problem we've been faced with for a long time," Mayor Dolan said. He emphasized that many of the older pipes have been reduced from a two-foot diameter to as low as 16 inches -- due to collection of sludge along the walls.

"It has happened before, and we have professionals who are already at work cleaning up the city," the mayor said. That was immediately after the rain ceased. He pointed out that the city has been flooded recently in 1996, 2001, and now 2006.

"The sewerage starts backing up and overflowing after a five-to-six inch rain. At that point [the treatment plant at] Deer Island can't handle it," he said. "Actually all of our pumping stations worked flawlessly, as designed."

He also said that the city has embarked on a five-year program to replace sewer and drainage pipes -- at an estimated cost of a million dollars a year. "It is a costly project," he emphasized.

Help comes from many sources ...

Many of the evacuees from the Steele House (for seniors) and some from the Towers were placed at two hotel chains on Route 1 -- Day's Inn in Saugus, and the Hampton Inn in Danvers. "They offered their facilities at $49 per room," Mayor Dolan said, "and then the Salvation Army stepped in to provide three meals a day, and social activities during the worst of the storm. This was a vital substitute for cots in a local gymnasium." The MBTA supplied eight heated busses, at no cost, to transport the evacuees.

At one point several food shops in Melrose provided sandwiches and coffee for the men working in the flood.

"The State emergency system was put into effect, and help came from all quarters," Dolan said. Even the Coast Guard came to town with vital pumps.

The Christ Church on Upham Street has an affiliate church in Tennessee, which collected a huge truck full of supplies, then delivered it to Melrose in a straight-through, 24-hour trip. The cache was opened to all comers -- food, blankets, clothing -- all free.

"The Governor was in Melrose twice," Mayor Dolan said. "The help we received was tremendous."

Even the Sheriff of Middlesex County offered help. Twelve short-term non-violent prisoners were dispatched to Melrose to help dig out. They worked with the 21-man team of the Melrose Department of Public Works throughout the emergency.

Renee Chisholm, the animal control officer and a deputy police officer in Melrose, made a list of pets in vacated homes and apartments, and made sure the animals were fed and had water each day during the evacuation. In some cases, firefighters had to provide her with boat transportation.

Mayor Dolan was delighted that the design of the new Middle School on Lynn Fells Parkway, currently under construction, worked just as designed. At the high point of the flood, the water was four feet below the newly-poured slab for the new school, according to Project Superintendent Larry Hueter. "The system worked perfectly," he beamed.

The last day of the torrential rains was Tuesday, May 16. Within a week the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) had set up shop at the Milano Senior Center, offering (at that point) advice and aid to Melrose people who had significant damage from the storm. About the same time, FEMA representatives appeared to survey the city; it was their decision, Mayor Dolan said, to recommend to the President that Melrose be declared a disaster area, thereby making the city eligible for federal grants.

Mayor Dolan said that FEMA had recently announced the award of 75 percent of the cost of expanding the capacity of the Upham Street pumping station, which includes installation of new, larger pipes from the Saugus line to the vicinity of St. Mary's, downtown. The award came at a propitious time. he said.

He also said that the city will develop a second drain to Ell Pond, a two-year project that will run (basically) along the railway right of way to connect to the water tunnel at Oak Grove in Malden. This also will be financially supported by the Federal government.

Within a week, the water had subsided and the city began to take on it's spring foliage display. Meanwhile endless homes in town still faced extensive clean-up and repair, thanks to this 'storm of the century'.

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