As the sweaty Kennebec River recedes, the messy cleanup of riverside business districts begins

In towns along the Kennebec River, business owners and residents were just beginning Wednesday to clean up mud and debris left behind by raging floodwaters.

But power was still out in many areas, and basements in some buildings in areas including Hallowell and Gardiner were still full of water as temperatures began to drop below freezing.

“I had a nine-foot ceiling in there and it hit the bottom of my beams. So you’re talking at least nine feet,” said Claude Caron, whose family has run Gerard’s Pizza in downtown Gardiner for more than a half-century. .

Caron plans to retire Friday and let his daughter and son-in-law take over the downtown Gardiner pizza shop he started and named for his father. But on Wednesday, Caron was waiting for the floodwaters to recede so he could inspect the damage to the restaurant’s oven, beer coolers and propane tanks that power the pizza ovens.

As he repairs the restaurant floor, Caron said they haven’t seen water this high in downtown Gardiner in more than 30 years. But he said it could be worse, because the water rose just below his cellar door.

Caron said he hopes to reopen on January 1, which will allow him to officially hand over the reins to the third generation of Gerard Pizza.

“It’s saying ‘Bye’ to me it doesn’t want me to leave,” he said with a laugh. “I’m going to clean up this mess. She’s going in with her husband and we’ve got a big team coming this afternoon… We’re going to be fine.”

Outside, the sidewalks of downtown Gardiner echoed with the hum of generators and water pumps as businesses tried to speed up the natural drainage process. Most are still closed, including the Hannaford supermarket, whose parking lot is still under several feet of water.

Kevin Miller

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Maine Public

The parking lot of the Hannaford supermarket in downtown Gardiner flooded during the December 18, 2023, storm that caused the Kennebec River and tributaries to overflow their banks.

The entire stretch of the lower Kennebec from outside Skowhegan to Brunswick remains under a flood warning through Thursday. Flood stage in nearby Hallowell was 11 feet. But the Kennebec was almost twice as tall as of Wednesday morning. And like Gardiner, historic downtown Hallowell is a chorus of generators, water pumps and sweepers as businesses try to clean up the mess.

At the Quarry Tap Room, which calls itself “the deepest watering hole in Hallowell,” the equipment-filled basement as well as the outdoor pavilion and stage are still submerged.

Down the block, manager Morgan Rush and other staff at The Frost Factory cannabis shop are making good progress mopping up the gunk and water left on their ground floor.

“Yeah, pretty high,” Rush said. “I arrived around 8 last night and it was probably just below our door. It was very high up there.”

This is Hallowell’s second flood in seven months, but the worst since 1987. Rush said he and staff moved all of their inventory and packaging to higher ground ahead of the storm. But they have to face infrastructural challenges.

“The floors … they can buckle because of the water,” Rush said, pointing to the hardwood floors that were free of mud but still wet. “We are going to probably have to get our heat pumps replaced. Hopefully we can fix it because we turned off the burner we have. And then our basement, luckily we weren’t there because we had a flood warning last week so we moved everything from there.”

But business is running across Water Street at nearby Hallowell Seafood and Produce thanks to a generator and a quick clean building.

In fact, the owner, Justin Underwood, said that they were not closed on Tuesday because the river flooded the water road and crept towards their parking lot.

“We (opened) when the water came up,” Underwood said. “We sell after 6’clock. They are looking for beer. They have nothing else to look for,” he added with a laugh.

Justin Underwood, owner of Hallowell Seafood and Produce, served dozens of customers a day after severe flooding closed several businesses in the downtown district, but not his.  Despite six inches of water overnight, the market was able to clean up and reopen the next day because the building was built according to flood plain specifications.

Kevin Miller

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Maine Public

Justin Underwood, owner of Hallowell Seafood and Produce, served dozens of customers a day after severe flooding closed several businesses in the downtown district, but not his. Despite six inches of water overnight, the market was able to clean up and reopen the next day because the building was built according to flood plain specifications.

Water Street, which is Hallowell’s main thoroughfare, reopened to traffic Wednesday morning after being submerged in several feet of water in some areas Tuesday and night.

Hallowell Seafood was required to meet flood specifications when the family built in 2004 specs such as concrete low walls, pressure treated lumber and floor drains. So Underwood said they were ready by the time the water receded on Wednesday.

“Hot water, bleach, squeegee it,” he said between customers. “It came to six inches so we were lucky. Anything more than that and we started getting a little squirmy.”

A few miles uptown Augusta, Heather Pouliot says the real estate business she runs with her husband, state Sen. Matt Pouliot, is weathering the storm because Realtors can work remotely.

But he could not enter the basement of the building, which they also own. He estimated that the water rose 7-10 feet there. But on Wednesday afternoon, he had something else to worry about besides the flood water and that was the drop in temperature. Nighttime temperatures are expected to be in the low 20s on Wednesday and in the low teens on Thursday and Friday nights, with daytime highs not expected to rise above freezing.

“As far as the building goes, it’s bleak,” said Pouliot. “We’re out of power and there’s no indication we’re going to get it in the next few hours. So with the temps dropping it’s a little scary. we’re a little bit higher than some of them.”

Basements of buildings along Water Street in downtown Augusta experienced severe flooding following the December 18, 2023 storm.

Kevin Miller

/

Maine Public

Basements of buildings along Water Street in downtown Augusta experienced severe flooding following the December 18, 2023 storm.

Pouliot stands on the Water Street sidewalk with Victoria Abbott, executive director of Bread of Life Ministries and David Hopkins, owner of Merkaba Sol Chocolate Shoppe. Businesses on the river side of the street are without power due to floodplains, but businesses and non-profits across the street have power.

All three said businesses help each other, with those in power offering freezer space, free food and other assistance to their powerless neighbors. And they say that’s part of the close-knit, small community spirit of downtown businesses.

But the group acknowledged that the flood comes at a terrible time for many.

“Injury-wise, as far as our business goes we’re OK,” Hopkins said. “It just got to our basement and then stopped and started to come back. with no power and no heat. It hardens it.”

The Kennebec is not expected to fall below flood stage until Thursday morning.


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