FORT KENT, Maine – The rain-swollen St. John River crested early Thursday after hitting a record high, forcing residents to flee to higher ground as more than 100 homes flooded.
Rain and melting snow raised the St. John to more than 30 feet — about 5 feet above flood stage — causing widespread flooding. The previous record crest of 27.3 feet was set in 1979.
Floodwaters flowed down streets and swamped homes, businesses, yards and the landmark St. Louis Catholic Church in the center of town.
At Quigley's Building Supply, the waters filled the lumber yard in less than half an hour, sending lumber downriver and putting the yard under 12 feet of water.
Manager Justin Dubois was philosophical about the losses.
"It's frustrating but at least everyone's OK. Everything is replaceable," he said.
Nearby, Christine Chasse used a snow shovel to push water and debris out of her two-car garage. A hastily made berm protected her home from the Fish River on one side while the town levee protected her home form the St. John River on other side.
Still, the waters managed to flood her basement and turn her yard into a lake. Her family moved the furniture to the second floor when they were told to evacuate.
"I'm very sad to see the church under water, and I realize there are some people worse off than us," she said.
The 600 people who were evacuated in the Fort Kent area and officials sighed with relief that water did not spill over a levee. Also, the International Bridge that connects Maine and Canada held up, despite fears that the raging waters could drag it down, choking the fast-moving river and sending more water into the town.
"If the bridge had let go, that would've been the end for Fort Kent. The whole town would've washed out," Police Chief Kenneth Michaud said Thursday. No one was hurt, he said.
Officials continued to keep an eye on other rivers under flood warnings in northern Maine, but there was no indication of any significant rises elsewhere.
Michael Fitzsimmons, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Caribou, Maine, said the water level at the St. John's River was 29.6 feet at 4 a.m. Thursday, down from a peak of 30.14 feet at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Scientists described the flooding for the community of 4,200 people in Fort Kent as "greater than a 100-year event," said Lynette Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency.
Across the river in Canada, officials issued warnings to residents in low-lying areas around Fredericton, New Brunswick, about 200 miles from Fort Kent. Up to 1,300 homes there were threatened by rising water.
Gov. John Baldacci, who flew from Augusta to get a firsthand look at the floodwaters Wednesday, requested disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Officials have been watching the St. John since last week, when rising waters caused concern on the Canadian side. Those waters had been receding until a deluge of at least 3 inches of rain began Tuesday, said Joseph Hewitt of the National Weather Service in Caribou.
There was still a half-foot of snow on the ground following a winter that dumped around 200 inches of snow in the region, and the melting snow exacerbated the situation.