The spring of 2006 brought a paucity of rain that resulted in very dry conditions throughout Eastern New England. I remember noting the dryness of the landscape while patrolling through April into early May. Places normally exhibiting pools of standing water; the low ground west of Route One, Town Farm Road, and the Greenbelt property off of County Road, were nearly parched and less verdant than usual. Bull Brook was all but a trickle, and the spring rush of the Ipswich River had long past. It would be a tough summer for lawns and gardens, and I wondered how Marini Farms would struggle to irrigate their crops.
The dry pattern continued until the weekend of May 13 and 14 – Mother’s Day weekend, when Eastern New England and Essex County in particular would be subjected to days of relentless, pouring rain with a full moon to boot! This storm would cause millions of dollars in property damage, cause deaths and leave Ipswich nearly isolated from neighboring communities.
With the Jet Stream dropping south of the normal west-east flow pattern, a strong high pressure system in Eastern Canada blocked the tropical, moisture laden air streaming up the east coast. Unable to exit over the ocean, this air mass remained stationary over New England, bringing rain, wind and more rain.
The storm began in earnest on Saturday May 13, and at first seemed a mere inconvenience to the folks scurrying to complete weekend errands and plan their celebrations for Mom. However, by the afternoon hours it was clear that we were in for an unprecedented weather event, one that forecasters termed “A Hundred Year Storm.”
That night I listened at home as the rain hammered against the roof and gutters. The dawn came dark and foreboding. I woke to see ponds of water on all four sides of our little ranch house and a wide stream of water flowing through the backyard and spilling into the bulkhead. I scrambled to add a second pump into the sump hole, then waded into the freshet and wrestled old brush, limbs and other blockages from the usually bone dry drainage ditch out back. Late for work, I wished Josie a Happy Mother’s Day, and reported for duty.
At the station-house, the dispatch room was buzzing with phone calls, police and fire radio transmissions, status boards, weather reports and dozens of other storm related activities. Detective Charlie Cooper was Emergency Management Director then, and he was up to his ears in questions, complaints and coordination tasks. Charlie being Charlie, he was equal parts of aggravation and excitement over the crisis at hand, and was completely up to the task. Off duty cops, firefighters and dispatchers were called in as DPW crews struggled to keep the roads open.
County Road was severely flooded by Saltonstall Brook just south of the phone company building, and a police cruiser and several other vehicles had been disabled while trying to traverse the roadway. By 10:00 am this road was closed and Route 1A-133 traffic was diverted through Essex, Northgate and Argilla Roads. The flooding would eventually extend beyond Lane’s End, inundating several nearby homes and the Giles Fermin Playground.
High Street flooded in the area of Browns Pond and become impassable in spots. Areas of Topsfield Road were submerged and this road would be closed before days end. Bull Brook was surging across Linebrook Road with waters draining from Willowdale Forrest. The hydraulic power was so intense that late in the afternoon, the culvert collapsed and Linebrook Road just washed away, isolating the area west of Galicki Farm.
Responding to emergencies and calls for assistance was a challenge. Linebrook Fire Station was opened and fully staffed. A police cruiser and ambulance were stationed west of Marini Farms in order to provide coverage of the outer Linebrook area.
Route One in Topsfield was closed in the area of the fairgrounds by the swollen Ipswich River. People attempting to drive south toward Boston were forced to drive out to Route 95 in Georgetown. Tragically, two men died in separate incidents in Topsfield.On May 16, James Eldkin, who lived in New Hampshire and worked on Route One in Ipswich, was found drowned in his swamped vehicle on Salem Road. On Sunday, May 21, the body of Melvin Hughes of Topsfield, an employee of the Postal Service and beloved presence at the Agawam Diner, was recovered near Rowley Bridge Road days after he had been reported missing by his family. His swamped and flooded vehicle was discovered nearby. Both men had been caught on lonely, flooded roadways while driving to work in the pre-dawn darkness.
Others had better fortune, and the I.P.D. answered a number of calls of stranded motorists who ignored common sense and attempted to drive through barricaded and flooded streets. Tow truck companies earned a lot of soggy dollars that weekend.
On the morning of Monday, May 15, schools remained closed as South Main Street began to flood. This was caused in part by the new River Walk Footbridge acting more like a dam than a pathway. The river waters were pushed laterally, onto both South Main Street and the Ebsco parking lot and archives building. I watched in dismay as the water lapped across South Main onto the War Memorial and into the police station parking lot. Further down South Main, the waters crept up between the buildings and spilled out onto the street. By 2:00 pm we were evacuating people from their apartments and at 4:35 pm, South Main Street was closed to traffic.
By Tuesday, May 16, the rain began to taper off, but the destruction continued. Portions of Lakemans Lane were crumbling, and by noontime the integrity of the County Street Bridge was so precarious that it was closed to vehicles and pedestrians. This was followed by the closure of the Choate Bridge and the establishment of a detour for 1A-133 traffic onto Poplar Street, Turkey Shore Road and Green Street.
As the river expanded behind Ebsco, the waters rose up along the alleyways and onto Market Street, flooding the basements of every building and meeting the waters of Farley Brook as they gushed from the blocked storm drains. The downtown flooded and by 2:00 pm, Market Street was closed. All businesses lost power and workers moved frantically to protect or salvage whatever property they could reach. Folks could be seen walking silently along Market Street with anguished looks, taking photos and standing witness to the damage and the relentless power of nature.
Ipswich had received 10.97 inches of rain.The Ipswich River would crest at 10′.67″. The normal flood stage is 7′. The flow rate was nearly twenty times the norm. Street drainage systems were overwhelmed, leaving many neighborhoods inundated. It was estimated that nearly half the homes in town received water damage of some degree. The Ipswich Fire Department responded to over 250 requests to pump flooded basements. The Police Station, Linebrook Fire Station, Library, Town Hall, Cemetery Office and Power Plant all received rain and flood related damage.
On Tuesday, the first concerns of erosion at the Mill Road Bridge were reported by Officer Ted Lemieux. He was working a traffic post there and observed the bridge shift as the detoured cars and trucks passed over the ancient structure. The river had risen so high that the roadbed sandwiched between the arches and pavement had flushed away. The police and DPW continued to monitor the integrity of the bridge throughout the night, and by 10:30 on Wednesday morning, this bridge was closed to traffic.
Fortunately, at the same time the Mill Road Bridge was closed, the County Street Bridge passed inspection and was re-opened to traffic. This relieved the South Side neighborhood of bumper to bumper cars along narrow streets – at least until the Green Street intersection where the traffic stalled again. West of downtown, emergency repairs had been made on Linebrook Road at Bull Brook, once again allowing traffic to outer Linebrook and beyond.
By Thursday, May 18, the river had begun to recede ever so slightly, allowing the reopening of South Main Street. Just before noon that day, I received a call of a vehicle in the water near the submerged Willowdale Bridge. Joining me there was Fire Department Lieutenant Jeff French and a crew of firefighters. We were shocked to see a small vehicle had driven beyond the barricade deep into the flooded roadway. I put binoculars on the vehicle for a better view and saw the swirling waters nearly up to the window well. It was difficult to see if anyone was inside and I had not observed anyone on Topsfield Road as I was driving to the call. Could the person be trapped in the vehicle? Did they attempt to walk off and get swept downstream? Had the Ipswich River claimed the life of another motorist?
Jeff French is a brave, can-do firefighter. He looked out at the car bobbing in the water and after weighing the risks decided to try to reach the vehicle. He donned a survival suit and harness, and tethered to a long line held by the rest of us, slowly made his way into the rushing river. From my position on dry land I could see the vehicle afloat and bobbing sideways by the force of the flow. Jeff struggled in the waist-deep water and when he reached the vehicle signaled to us that no one was inside. He looked around the immediate area for signs of an operator, then we reeled him back to shore and wondered what to do next.
As it turned out, the operator was safe and sound. He had been attempting to join a group of fellow bird watchers at Appleton Farms and had gotten confused by the many detours. His GPS told him to take Willowdale Road, and well, who pays attention to barricades and water anyway? After his engine flooded he abandoned ship and walked out to Topsfield Road where he was picked up by a passer-by to join his fellow avian enthusiasts. He forgot to call us about his flooded car though, and when he returned was dismayed to see it being towed away. More hard earned, soggy dollars for the tow truck operator.
Throughout the flood, the Town Wharf parking lot was submerged as the river roared past creating a whirlpool at Ringbolt Rock. There was very little tidal activity; the river seemed continually at flood stage. The launch dock strained against the force of the water and needed to be secured so as not to be torn from the seawall. The fresh water pouring downstream crashed at the bend creating a cascading effect of water on water. Local clammer Paul Damon recalled that the amount of rainwater flowing to the bay impacted the clam flats with closures and devastation of the Razor Clam beds for weeks to come.
As the flood waters receded, damage estimates were complied by Charlie Cooper in hopes of gaining Federal Disaster Assistance. It was clear that Ipswich had received unprecedented storm related damage. In addition to the bridge closures and lost roadways mentioned above, storm water culverts at Fellows Road, Old Right Road, Boxford Road and Sagamore Road had been destroyed at an estimated cost of at least $40,000. Over two and a half miles of roadway shoulders had been washed away and replaced, as well as portions of Jutland Way, Heartbreak Road, Labor In Vain, Sagamore and County Roads. The storm water drainage system in Farley Brook was impaired as well as the ongoing storm water drainage project in the Green and Summer Street area which had washed out costing an additional $45,000 to repair.
Most of the businesses on the east side of Market Street were heavily damaged and required replacement of electrical and plumbing utilities as well as structural repairs. More than 35 business establishments remained closed, and some would never reopen. Ebsco Publishing lost an entire inventory of archival material estimated in the millions of dollars. Both the Choate and County Street Bridges would require major repairs beneath the waterline. Diver-repairmen from Black Dog Underwater Construction of Deer Island Tunnel fame were called in. This work was done round the clock in series.
The Mill Road Bridge required a different treatment involving drilling through the arch stones and stitching them together with rods of steel and grout. This work was done by a company from Canada that specialized in the restoration of historic, stone arch bridges. After two years and lots of money, the “back road to Beverly” was reopened – much to the chagrin of the neighbors who had grown fond of their quiet seclusion. And who could blame them?
The storm did have some positive aspects, I suppose. Neighbors pitched in to help each other, and the ability of the various town departments to handle a wide spread emergency was tested and met. For those of us who live near and appreciate the beauty of the river, perhaps the most important revelation was a new found awareness that severe weather events could happen anywhere – even in sleepy old Ipswich.
The author wishes to thank retired IPD Detective Charlie Cooper for sharing his archived records of the disaster, as well as for his hard work and expertise in getting Ipswich back up on its feet during this soggy saga. Paul Damon and retired IPD Detective Ted Lemieux provided valuable contributions to the content of this article. Topsfield P.D. Officer Shawn Frost assisted with information on the tragic drownings in his community. Gordon Harris and The Ipswich Watershed Association provided the photos seen below.
What are your memories of that fateful event? Please comment and add to the discussion. For all we know, the next “Hundred Year Storm” could be right around the corner.