People fled homes and businesses along both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border near this town at the northern tip of Maine on Wednesday as the area suffered its worst flooding on record.
At least 3 inches of rain in 24 hours combined with melting of the heaviest winter snow accumulation in memory to send the St. John River to 28.2 feet — more than 3 feet above flood stage.
The river is expected to crest at 31 feet Thursday, 4 feet higher than the previous record set in 1979, said Joseph Hewitt of the National Weather Service.
The St. John had risen so much that the International Bridge between Fort Kent and Clair, New Brunswick, was closed during the night amid fears that the racing water could drag it down.
“If that bridge falls over, it would make like a dam, and the water would wash over the main street,” Fort Kent police Chief Kenneth Michaud said.
“We’re evacuating all the main streets, going to all the businesses and telling them to close up for safety,” he said.
A bridge over the Fish River, which empties into the St. John in the town of about 4,200, also was closed as a precaution.
Across the St. John, emergency officials in New Brunswick warned people to brace for the worst flood in decades. Downstream from Fort Kent, 20 people evacuated their homes during the night in Edmundston, New Brunswick.
Farther downstream in Fredericton, crews cleared out the basement of the New Brunswick legislature, removing pictures of politicians dating back to the early 1800s, and sandbags were piled around the base of the Victorian-era legislature complex.
“People have to understand — we’re about to exceed the worst flood on record, which was in 1973,” warned Cindy Abbott, a spokeswoman for the flood command post in nearby Burton, New Brunswick.
In addition to the heavy rain this week, there had still been a half-foot of snow on the ground following a winter that dumped around 200 inches of snow in the region.
“In response to that, a lot of these rivers took off,” Hewitt said. The St. John is expected to remain above flood stage through Friday, he said.
Late Tuesday, Maine Gov. John Baldacci issued a state of emergency for Aroostook County because of flooding in the Fort Kent and Wallagrass areas.
An emergency shelter was set up at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, where 20 to 40 people had gathered by late morning.