Dam Threatens to Burst Above Mass. Town

Alex Chadwick talks with Martha Bebinger of member station WBUR about the century-old dam above the Massachusetts town of Taunton, which is in danger of breaking. The area has received more than 11 inches of rain in the last month — seven inches of that since last Friday. Emergency crews are trying to relieve pressure on the dam. If it fails, a six-foot wall of water could sweep through the town.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, lessons from Vietnam that might apply to Iraq today.

First, south of Boston, Taunton, Massachusetts, evacuated its downtown and closed schools today because a 100-year-old dam might burst. It's the Whittenton Pond dam, strained by the Taunton River, which is running very high. The area's had almost a foot of rain just this month. Joining us from Taunton is reporter Martha Bebinger of member station WBUR.

Martha, you're there at City Hall in Taunton. What are officials saying?

MARTHA BEBINGER reporting:

Officials are expressing a little less concern than they were earlier this morning. There seems to be a sense that water pressure behind the dam is decreasing. They're able to--a lot of the water is actually coming through leaks in the dam at this point, and it's also being relieved through runoff so that they're a little bit less concerned about a total collapse of the dam, which would flood the downtown area.

CHADWICK: Now it's not just one dam we're talking about here?

BEBINGER: That's right. The dam that we are talking about, the hundred-year-old dam you described, is wooden, and some of the timbers have started to crack letting water through. There's also an earthen dam above the wooden dam and one earthen dam below it. The stress on both of those, should the Whittenton dam collapse, would mean the release of a lake that is above the Whittenton dam. So the flood would be fairly extensive into downtown Taunton coming through one residential area. That's where above 2,000 people have been evacuated.

The evacuation of downtown this morning was business owners pulling tuxedos out of their shops, loading up computers. One woman who makes edible floral arrangements was trying to figure out what to do with a lot of fruit that might rot. You can imagine how disruptive it might be to all of a sudden be told you couldn't be in business for a day.

CHADWICK: Well, I think it would be very, very disruptive.

So you're saying about 2,000 people have been pulled out of the area? Is that the number threatened?

BEBINGER: Yes. That number represents the residents of about several hundred homes. Some of them are staying in a high school shelter today, and a lot of them at work so they're not at the shelter now; kids who are not at school are staying there. And then this whole section of the downtown is also closed off, and all of the roadways that cross the Mill River in and out of Taunton are closed off. So it's a really a much bigger area that's affected than just the several hundred homes and 2,000 residents.

CHADWICK: Martha, I've seen pictures of this dam on CNN, which is going back and forth to live coverage of the water just spilling through and around and over the dam. I can't quite figure out from these pictures how big the thing is. I mean, you say that it's wooden. How big could it be?

BEBINGER: Well, picture also, if you can--this is a dam that was built as a textile dam. So it goes across the expanse of a river that's probably 30, 40 feet wide. The dam is--water and so on is spilling over the top, or has been, during the day, so that means that the spillage increases beyond the width of the dam. But it's really quite a picturesque area with these old mill buildings. Someone has recently purchased the property--the dam is privately owned--and part of the intent is to convert the mill into a combination of condos and business use. So it's really quite a lovely area except that the threat of water makes it quite dangerous.

CHADWICK: Well, I wonder aren't there people saying, `Look, it's a lovely, beautiful, old wooden dam, but these days, we build dams out of concrete, reinforced concrete'?

BEBINGER: Right. Massachusetts has about 3,000 privately owned dams, and many of them do date back to this textile period. The state inspects them and can require repairs and changes, but can't require that the dams be rebuilt at this point.

CHADWICK: OK. Martha Bebinger from member station WBUR--that's a station in Boston--talking about the threat to the dam in Taunton, Massachusetts.

Martha, thank you.

BEBINGER: Thank you.

CHADWICK: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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