HALLOWELL — Bruce Mayo worried that there might be flooding on Front Street in Hallowell this past weekend after warmer weather and rainfall broke up the ice along the Kennebec River.

Mayo, who owns the Easy Street Lounge, a cocktail bar in the basement of a property that touches low-lying Front Street, even spoke with Hallowell Police Chief Eric Nason about that risk last week, he said. Nason usually stays in touch with business owners when there is a risk of flooding.

But while Mayo was on “high alert” throughout Saturday, he said he never received a call from Nason warning of a coming flood on Saturday, which he “thought was odd.”

In fact, the National Weather Service did issue a flood warning for the Kennebec River on Friday, after first issuing a flood watch the day before. A flood warning is a more serious type of alert that signals “flooding is imminent or occurring,” according the agency’s website.

But that information didn’t make it to business owners like Mayo.

Interviews with local and state officials on Monday makes clear that a breakdown in communication occurred: Kennebec County emergency officials failed to communicate the latest weather service data that flooding was imminent.

Instead, around midnight, Mayo said that he heard flooding and was encouraging guests to pay their tabs and leave, and he was moving things out of his basement. A man who’d been playing music at the bar had locked his keys in his car and, in order to get out quickly, even broke through his window, Mayo said.

A flood was coming after all, because of ice that had accumulated downstream and created a dam in the river. In the course of a few minutes, the water rose about 8 feet in downtown Hallowell and Augusta.

Basements were inundated with the icy contents of the Kennebec. No injuries were reported, but more than a day later, cars were still embedded in the freezing water around downtown Hallowell.

A total estimate of the damage from the flood was unavailable Monday, as officials said it would depend on the amount of damage to those cars. In total, at least a dozen vehicles were submerged.

In Augusta, by contrast, just one car was damaged after police spent much of Saturday warning drivers not to park in the flood plain, and even ordered two cars to be towed to safety after their owners couldn’t be reached.

To Mayo, it seemed unusual that he didn’t receive a heads up about the risk to downtown Hallowell on Saturday. He was able to limit the damage from the water that did enter his bar. But he said there are other people who have moved to Hallowell in recent years and, unaware of the flood risk, may have parked their cars along Front Street that night.

“Obviously someone dropped the ball on communication,” he said. “There should have been stepped up emergency management.”

Eric Nason

In an interview, Nason said that he normally contacts local businesses about the flood risk in downtown Hallowell when he learns from state or county emergency management officials that a flood warning has been issued. On Saturday, no officials informed him about a flood warning, he said.

A spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency, Susan Faloon, said that counties are usually responsible for communicating with towns and cities about the risk of a flood.

Sean Goodwin, Kennebec County’s emergency management director, said he did not receive any update that the National Weather Service had upgraded the forecast to a flood warning on Saturday morning.

“I didn’t have that information to disperse,” Goodwin said. “It may have come to the office, but I wasn’t in the office.”

Goodwin disputed that there had been a communications breakdown.

The National Weather Service first issued a flood watch for the Kennebec River on Friday morning, then upgraded it to a warning at 10 a.m. Saturday, according to Chris Kimble, a meteorologist at the federal agency’s office in Gray.

Another meteorologist at the agency, Bob Marine, said the warning was based on the warm weather and heavy rain late last week, which threatened to break up the ice over the Kennebec River, leading to a blockage that could cause water levels to suddenly rise.

“That’s pretty much what happened,” Marine said on Monday.

On Friday, Goodwin did send out an emailed alert to emergency management officials around the county notifying them that heavy rain was forecast to fall Friday and Saturday.

“Will the Kennebec River come up? Yes,” Goodwin wrote on Friday. “Will the river come over the banks? Most likely not, but keep in mind … with all the melting, we could have an ice jam anywhere on the river. We have had ice jams before, sometimes with no problems, other times with big problems.”

On Monday, Goodwin said, he sent that email on Friday after participating in a conference call with officials from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Maine Emergency Management agency. Going into the weekend, he said, he was “more worried” about the threat of freezing rain on Sunday.

Even if Goodwin had known there was a flood warning on Saturday, he continued, it wouldn’t have necessarily helped anticipate when or where an ice jam might form along the Kennebec River.

“If I had that kind information, I’d play the stock market,” he said. “There was no way we can predict when an ice jam can happen, nor the severity of the ice jam. … We’ve had them before. Ice jams always develop quickly, and the water always rises fast. This isn’t the first time.”

Goodwin said that the recent floods are “very tragic for some of those people (who were affected by them), depending on economic background and things like that.”

But Goodwin also said that he didn’t know what business owners could have done differently if they heard an ice jam might form, and that besides, there’s no guarantee the efforts of police to notify everyone about the danger would be successful.

Sean Goodwin

“If I knocked on your door at 4 p.m. and say there might be an ice jam and you’re not home, and the ice jam happens 6, 7 hours later, does that mean I’m at fault for not warning you?” Goodwin said. “That doesn’t sound fair.”

At its peak, the Kennebec River in Augusta surged above the 12 foot flood stage, reaching close to 20 feet. By Monday morning, it had receded to 14 feet, and kept dropping throughout the day.

Chris Vallee, an owner of the Quarry Tap Room, also said that Nason has warned him about the risk of floods in the past. His business lost nearly all of its food in the waters that entered its basement early Sunday, and on Monday, staff were hauling the goods out to a dumpster parked on Water Street.

But Vallee said he doesn’t think the police chief “dropped the ball” over the weekend. Mayo, of the Easy Street Lounge, said he agreed that the lack of warning was not the police chief’s fault.

Another owner of the Tap Room, Steven LaChance, agreed with Vallee and noted that the ice jam in the river had “snuck up on everybody.”

The outcome of the flooding in Augusta was considerably different than in Hallowell. The city’s public works director, Lesley Jones, made the decision to close the Front Street parking area on Saturday after monitoring a forecasting program on the National Weather Service’s website, she said.

Augusta police blocked off the parking lot and called the owners of the cars that were there, telling them to move them. They also towed two whose owners they could not reach. Just one car ended up in the flood zone on Saturday night after arriving following the departure of police, said Deputy Chief Jared Mills.

“We were very fortunate to have planned early on for this worse case scenario,” Mills said in an email. “This was a very coordinated effort between police fire and public works that resulted in the damage to property being as minimized as it could possibly be under the circumstances.”

Nason, Hallowell’s police chief, said on Monday that he didn’t contact business owners about the risk of flooding because he only heard about the flood watch that was put in place on Friday, and that the flooding seemed to develop more quickly than when ice jams have formed in the past.

Nason declined to say whether he thought the information from county and state officials was adequate ahead of Saturday’s flooding. “I’m not going to get into the blame game,” he said.

“I can tell you right now, I’ve been on force for 29 years,” he continued “We’ve never had this kind of problem, to my knowledge, in the past. It was so quick. There wasn’t any time to respond. There were no indicators this was going to occur. We can always second guess. I’m sure that we’ll evaluate our notification systems, even though they’ve always worked in the past.”

Mark Walker, Hallowell’s mayor, also said he’d heard that river rose very quickly on Saturday night.

But given the extent of the damage to buildings and cars that resulted from the flooding, he said, the City Council will take a look at whether any information should have been provided to residents and businesses.

“We’re going to definitely investigate that,” he said.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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