AUGUSTA — The Front Street parking lot along the Kennebec River flooded Wednesday in downtown Augusta as river ice jammed up, forcing people parked there to scramble.

At least one motorist had to wade through floodwater and chunks of ice to move a vehicle away from the rising river.

An ice jam, high tide and an unseasonable amount of runoff in the river combined to cause the local flooding, authorities on the scene speculated.

“It was just the culmination of everything. The ice was flowing down the channel up to an hour ago,” said Augusta police Lt. Kevin Lully Wednesday morning. Then, Lully said, ice began backing up as the tide rose, and around 9:30 a.m. ice chunks and river water overflowed the riverbanks into the northern end of the Front Street parking lot, reaching across it to a retaining wall and the bottom of a raised section of the parking lot, but not appearing to enter buildings there.

All vehicles were removed, though some just barely made it.

One motorist arrived just as police were getting out some rope to try to pull her vehicle out of harm’s way, Lully said. The woman walked through shin-high water to get to her vehicle and drive it out of the parking lot.

Sean Goodwin, Kennebec County Emergency Management director, said the river rose 3 or 4 feet in just a half-hour. He said such a rapid rise is a sure indication the flood was primarily caused by the ice jamming up at that location.

“When it jumps 3 or 4 feet, that’s an ice jam,” Goodwin said. “Certainly, there was runoff into the river, but this is an ice jam.”

He said the agency will continue to monitor the jam, which, if it doesn’t break up, could be a longer-term problem to keep an eye on.

He said the ice below the site, all the way from just below the jam to the Richmond-Dresden bridge, is intact, still frozen in most areas, and fairly smooth, trapping the Augusta ice jam.

“You’d hope the tide would come up and break up the ice jam, but there’s no place for the jam to go,” Goodwin said. “We’re not sure when it will flush out, because there is nowhere for it to flush to.”

The city’s Public Works Department sent out an emergency notification to warn people whose vehicles were parked in the lot to remove them. The alert system allows users to enter their addresses and provide phone numbers, including cellphone numbers if they wish, to be notified if there is an emergency in that part of the city.

Lully said authorities were fortunate to be able to notify all the people whose vehicles were in harm’s way. The flood was limited to the northern portion of the lot.

The southern portion of the lot sustained some minor flooding, but not from the river. A large puddle formed on the nonriver side of the southern end of the parking lot, where a water main break occurred in the early morning hours. The water from the river and the water from the water main break did not meet in the parking lot. Greater Augusta Utility District workers were working on the broken water main Wednesday morning.

Two men at an adjacent building stacked roughly a dozen sand bags on the edge of the building’s lower entrance to try to prevent water from entering.

High tide on the Kennebec in Augusta occurred about 10:25 a.m., though officials at the scene reported the water, which had retreated to the edge of the parking lot after high tide, had begun rising again shortly after 11 a.m.

The river reached more than 14 feet at 11:24 a.m., as measured by a U.S. Geological Survey site at Calumet Bridge. Flood stage is 12 feet.

The river crested there at 34 feet in April 1987. A mile-long ice jam in January 2010 sent floodwater into parts of downtown Augusta and Hallowell when the river topped 17 feet.

On Wednesday, several ice chunks a few feet in diameter remained in the flooded section of the parking lot late Wednesday morning.

Police blocked access to the lot until public works crews arrived to put up barricades to prevent people from parking there.

Lully said the parking lot probably would be closed off for at least a couple of hours, then reopen as long as the floodwater subsided.

Goodwin said the parking lot could be ready for parking by Thursday, but if the ice jam remains in place, parking there could remain an iffy proposition.

“It could be fine tomorrow, but I really don’t know,” he said. “You never really know what’s going on under the ice.”

Downriver often flood-prone areas of Hallowell appeared to be unaffected and dry Wednesday morning with the ice there flat and not broken up.

The jam appeared to be only between just below Calumet Bridge at Old Fort Western to just below Memorial Bridge in Augusta.

The National Weather Service issued a flood warning at 10:30 a.m. because of the ice jam. The warning will be in place until 1:30 a.m. Thursday.

The warning, which was updated at 1:33 p.m. Wednesday, notes, “Most of the parking lot on Front Street is under water. The ice remains in place and the tide is currently going out. Low tide is scheduled for 6:20 p.m. this evening with high tide again at 11:10 p.m. The river will continue to fluctuate while the ice remains in place and river flows continue to rise due to the runoff from the rain and melting snow. River flow should begin to drop early tomorrow morning.”

The water levels appeared to be receding Wednesday afternoon, dropping to just over 13 feet by 4 p.m., according to data from a USGS monitoring station.

 

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj