TAUNTON, Mass. – Some downtown businesses reopened Friday morning after being shuttered for days because of fears that a storm-weakened dam could collapse and flood downtown Taunton with several feet of water.
Authorities pumped enough water from the rain-swollen lake above the Whittenton Pond Dam (search) to ease the evacuation order on Thursday night. About half the 2,000 residents urged to leave their homes earlier in the week were allowed to return, but hundreds more who live closer to the dam were asked to stay away.
"This is the most cars I've seen in a couple of days," said Robert Bury, 38, who was walking his dog as a steady stream of traffic filed through reopened downtown streets on Thursday night.
He and his girlfriend chose not to evacuate their apartment on a nearby street that remained closed, but said it's been "like a ghost town. Nothing open, nobody around."
Anthony Lentine welcomed the breakfast crowd back to his downtown deli on Friday morning. He estimated he lost $1,000 for each of the three days he was closed, but didn't blame town officials for not taking chances.
"After seeing what happened in New Orleans, God forbid we wouldn't want anything like that to happen here," he said.
Mayor Robert G. Nunes (search) cautioned that the threat had not entirely passed for the working-class city of 50,000 about 40 miles south of Boston.
The pumping that began Thursday — combined with dry weather — greatly relieved the pressure on the 173-year-old wooden dam. But another wave of foul weather expected to arrive this weekend could push area waterways back to flood levels.
Authorities fear another major storm could overwhelm the dam and send a 6-foot wall of water surging through downtown Taunton, about a half-mile downstream. The city remained under a state of emergency that will continue into next week, Nunes said.
"We feel very comfortable with the decision we've made," he said. "We are seeing tremendous progress."
The congregation of the World Revival Church, Assembly of God, held its regular Thursday night service after the building was allowed to reopen.
"We're not scared," pastor Robson Rodriguez said, praising city officials for the handling of the crisis. "I know they were in control."
Several pumps began pulling water on Thursday from Lake Sabbatia, upstream from the dam. The water was then piped around the dam and returned to the Mill River farther downstream. The five pumps are able to move about 30,000 gallons of water per minute.
With the water level lowered, officials hope to get a closer look at the dam and make some repairs before another rainstorm strikes. They hope to convert the dam to an "automatic release" system — in which water rolls over the top, like a waterfall. Now the flow is regulated by floodgates that open and close, but that puts more pressure on the structure.
A weather system arriving this weekend is likely to drop 1 to 3 inches of rain, starting Saturday night. Forecasters said it was too soon to tell whether powerful Hurricane Wilma, now off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, would affect New England next week.
Last weekend, Taunton got more than 7 inches of rain, bringing the monthly total to more than 11 inches. The potential for flooding was still on the minds of people at a shelter at Taunton High School Thursday night.
Thomas Shaughnessy, 25, was headed home with his girlfriend and their cat, Apple, but he wasn't convinced they're completely safe.
"I'm not going to lie to you," he said. "I'm scared,"
Among those staying put was Rashid Kpabitey, 34, whose apartment is still in the evacuation zone.
"I wanted to go home," he said, "But if staying here is going to make me safe, I would rather be here."