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Mass. town readies for possible dam disaster

A weakened dam in the swollen Mill River is threatening to send a wall of water gushing into the working class town of Taunton, Mass.  NBC News' Ron Allen reports on how seriously local officials are taking the possible disaster in the former mill town of 50,000.
Michelle Cinnamon carries personal belongings as she is evacuated from an neighborhood near the Whittenton Dam in Taunton on Monday.Steven Senne / AP
/ Source: NBC News

TAUNTON, Mass. — A dam on the swollen Mill River in Taunton, Mass., is threatening to break at any moment and send up to six feet of water surging through the downtown area of the city of 50,000.

NBC News Ron Allen reports on how seriously local officials are taking the threatening disaster and what they are doing about it.

What is the situation right now?
At the moment they are watching it very closely — minute by minute — and hoping that it remains stable.

Mayor Robert Nunes said at a morning newsconference that the situation has not changed much over the last several hours, but they are keep an extremely close eye on it and are still encouraging residents along the Mill River to leave. 

The situation was getting progressively worse overnight. Apparently two support beams broke and water started flowing underneath.

That’s what made the officials here get much more concerned about this in the middle of the night. That’s why they evacuated up to 2,000 people, closed school for the day, and basically closed off the downtown area as a precaution.

The worst-case scenario is that a flood surge of up to six feet of water could come rushing through downtown Taunton. We are about two miles from the dam itself here at the Command Center at Taunton City Hall. But, there are many neighborhoods along the way that lie in the flood basin and they are threatened.

The bottom line is that officials are trying to be very cautious and get ahead of it. For example, Mayor Robert Nunes said, that this is essentially a “post-Katrina situation." The state and local officials don’t want to seem unprepared for something.

So, as a result, members of the National Guard are here, as well as a large number of state and local police, just in case the situation takes a turn for the worse.

What is community doing? Has everyone left town?
No, the town has a population of over 50,000 people, and there are only 2,000 who were affected by the evacuation order.

So, most people are going about their business and perhaps enjoying a day off in this working-class town, but wondering of course what is going to happen to their community. The schools are closed, so kids are home and out and about.

The good news here is that the weather seems to be breaking a bit. The sun is out for the first time today. That, of course, is good news because the problem here has been torrential rains all of last week.

The rain was particularly heavy on Friday and Saturday, which is when the pressure on the dam really built up and when this problem really became much more urgent and much more serious.  

Who is the dam owned by?
I believe the dam is privately owned by the company it sits adjacent to. The factory used to be the site of Whittenton Mills, which was a major manufacturer here in the 19th century and during the early 20th century.

The factory that owns it now uses it as a source of power, as has been the case with these dams on this river for many years.

I believe the dam was inspected about two years ago and got a “fair” mark. I don’t know if there are any significant repairs or improvements done after that.

How are the evacuations going?  
There were some door-to-door evacuations in the area very close to the dam early this morning. Two-thousand people have left their homes in a city of 50,000. So we are talking about a relatively small area of town that has been affected, but we are also talking about the downtown and the commercial heart of the city.

The bottom line is that officials are trying to watch it very closely. They think that they can control the flow of water going over and around the dam, with other dams that are upstream. They are hoping to basically ease the situation down in sort of a controlled breach, if you will.

But, of course, anything could happen with so much pressure on the dam that it could just give way. But at the moment, that does not seem to be imminent.