TAUNTON, Mass. – Authorities relieved pressure on a damaged wooden dam Tuesday as the water level fell in the rain-swollen Mill River (search), but an evacuation order remained in effect, and schools and highways were closed amid fears of flooding.
Mayor Robert Nunes (search) said the 173-year-old Whittenton Pond Dam took a turn for the worse around 2 a.m. But the dam continued to hold as authorities adjusted the flow between it and a second dam upstream.
"The condition of the dam at Whittenton Mills has not deteriorated significantly over the past several hours," Nunes said at a late morning news conference.
Taunton (search), a city of nearly 50,000 people, has received 111/2 inches of rain this month, including more than 7 inches from Friday through Sunday, according to the National Weather Service (search).
A light rain fell early in the day Tuesday, but the water level in Lake Sabbatia, the body of water behind the dam, had fallen several inches by late morning.
"As the water level decreases, it will be taking a load off the structure and that's what everyone is looking for," said engineer Matthew Bellisle, who had examined the dam.
Also Tuesday, Gov. Mitt Romney ordered the emergency inspection of all high-risk dams in the state. Dams are considered high risk when, "if they were to breach, there would be a significant loss of life or property," Romney said at a Statehouse news conference.
Whittenton Pond Dam is privately owned -- one of about 3,000 private dams in the state -- according to Romney. It was inspected two years ago and was considered in fair condition at that time. Forty other dams in the state have been deemed in poor or unsafe condition.
Some repairs were made to the dam since the last inspection, Romney said, but "this water was more than had been expected or anticipated."
"I've got my fingers crossed that this thing is able to hold," the governor said.
City officials said Monday that the 12-foot-high dam was buckling, and later a timber column washed away and officials warned that the entire structure could fail. Early Tuesday, more wooden timbers failed, allowing additional water to leak through and under the dam.
Nearly 2,000 people were evacuated from homes near the river on Monday.
Police knocked on Paul Wapenski's door early Tuesday and urged him to leave, but he decided to stay because he lives just upstream from the dam and didn't think his home was in danger.
"If (the dam) goes, I want to see it go," said the 55-year-old welder.
Shops were mostly deserted Tuesday on lower Main Street, where Scott Weyant said he didn't have flood insurance for his karate studio.
"I never figured I'd need it," Weyant said. "We're in the city. You don't get flooded in the city."
The state Highway Department closed roads into Taunton and the Massachusetts National Guard sent teams to the area.
The newsroom of the Taunton Daily Gazette was evacuated, though several reporters stayed at the scene, publisher John Shields said. The paper is published at its sister newspaper in Fall River.
Taunton, a former 19th-century manufacturing hub about 40 miles south of Boston, lies at the confluence of the Mill and Taunton rivers. The working-class city was last flooded in March 1968 when the same dam was breached. City Councilor Charles Crowley, a local historian, said there was catastrophic flooding in February 1886 following several days of rain.
The dam was built to power local textile mills. A factory operated by silver manufacturer Reed & Barton now sits adjacent to the dam, but the dam is no longer used by industry.