Aroostook flood recovery progresses; Masses held in K of C Hall, International Bridge reopens

This story was published on May 05, 2008 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

FORT KENT – The Roman Catholic pastor of St. John Vianney Catholic Parish asked his parishioners to help their neighbors during the trying times to come, after their lives were turned upside-down by floodwaters last week.

The Rev. James Nadeau spoke in the local Knights of Columbus Hall, which was transformed into a makeshift chapel to celebrate Masses as the cleanup of the flood-damaged St. Louis Catholic Church began over the weekend.

Nadeau told his flock that others throughout the state have been offering prayers and assistance since the St. John and Fish rivers combined their power Wednesday and forced the evacuation of 600 people from more than 140 homes and causing damage that will be in the millions of dollars.

At Fort Kent, the International Bridge to Canada was opened late Saturday afternoon, and the Fish River Bridge connecting East and West Main streets was opened to traffic later after inspections by Maine Department of Transportation bridge specialists. The bridges had been closed to traffic since Tuesday night.

Aroostook County Emergency Management director Vern Ouellette said Sunday afternoon that 70 National Guard personnel were assisting homeowners in the St. John Valley and at Island Falls. They were helping residents clean out their homes and property and piling trash at roadsides to be picked up later by crews.

Soldier Pond still had flooding problems Sunday, and Ouellette said the ice on Eagle Lake was expected to let go, which could produce another head of water down the Fish River to the small village in Wallagrass.

Ouellette said Sunday that all sewer collection pumps in Fort Kent were back on line and the system was up and running.

“Things are moving along quickly in the recovery,” Ouellette said. “I understand that people involved in the disaster may think it’s a bit slow, but response has been very good.

“I have people arriving from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Monday at Caribou, and people from the state,” he said. “They will be hitting the ground in individual towns by Tuesday.

“We have had minor problems, but for the most part the response has been very good,” said Ouellette, who was still working out of the town office at Fort Kent. “Responding agencies did a great job.”

Residents who did not suffer the rages of the waters assisted others who were cleaning out homes and cellars. Some were family, such as brothers Lloyd and Fern Thibodeau who helped their sister Adrienne Lamarre who resided at Fort Kent Housing, a 16-apartment complex for senior and disabled residents. Water rose 5 feet high inside Lamarre’s building, and the brothers were removing her damaged furniture and trying to salvage paperwork and years of family photographs.

Lamarre, who lived in the complex for 10 years, said she would be able to save dishes and some clothing, but everything else was gone.

The future of the complex, built in 1968 by Fort Kent Housing Inc., was unknown Saturday. Some residents, also trying to save belongings, said they thought the complex was so badly damaged it could be condemned.

Businesses downtown had signs saying they were open. A sign on Market Street thanked the volunteers who came to Fort Kent during the week.

St. Louis Catholic Church at Fort Kent, caught between the rushing waters of the two rivers, had what could be as much as $1 million in damage. Volunteer firefighters pumped water from the church Saturday and emptied the 10-foot-high cellar. One cellar wall crumbled from the pressure of the water.

The firefighters used their huge pump trucks to wash the mud and destruction from East Main Street.

Public Works Department employees were removing a temporary gravel berm created to stop the waters of the Fish River from flooding the business district.

The church, on East Main Street, may not reopen for six months while recovery work continues.

A poster on the huge front doors of the century-old church told parishioners Saturday and Sunday that Mass would be celebrated at the Route 1 hall of the Knights of Columbus, east of town. The church has two weekend Masses, at 4 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. Sunday.

Parishioners started arriving for Mass at the hall 45 minutes before the Saturday afternoon celebration. More than 300 attended the service.

Tables were removed from the hall, chairs were arranged in rows of 24 seats, and Mass was celebrated on a stage at one end of the 100-foot long building. Accoutrements for the altar were brought from the church.

Nadeau talked with parishioners before the service began. He looked tired after a week in which he saw 3 feet of water enter the church and 2 feet enter the higher rectory, forcing him to relocate to his parents’ home on Cross Lake. Nadeau also serves churches at Eagle Lake, St. Francis, Wallagrass and Allagash.

Volunteers on Saturday also emptied the rectory’s first floor. They dumped furniture, carpeting and electronic equipment into huge trash containers in the parking lot.

Still, Nadeau urged parishioners to take a positive outlook.

“The past few days the eyes of Maine, indeed, the eyes of the nation have been on Fort Kent,” he told his people. “They are looking at what people of faith will do, how people here will respond.

“Out of everything that happened here, can something good happen?” he asked. “Eyes are watching to see if, despite all the destruction, there will be new life.”

He urged people to come together. He told them Bishop Robert Malone has offered his prayers and assistance, as have others including a synagogue from southern Maine. He said Gov. John Baldacci and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a personal friend from Caribou, called offering assistance and encouragement.

Help came to the church and others, he said. People cleaned out streets and helped residents remove flooded belongings.

“People are coming to help, looking to us as we come together,” he said, “and we must, all five of our churches. They are looking to see what people of the St. John Valley are made of.

“How bad is it?” he asked. “It’s very bad.”

He told of two truckloads of furniture and others with clothing from Catholic Charities of Maine, truckloads of bottled water from Hannaford and Poland Spring.

Nadeau spoke of the rushing waters from the Fish River coming through the front of the church, the waters of the St. John moving in from the rear, all meeting within the church, wreaking havoc never before seen there.

He said 20 rows of pews were underwater, carpeting was ruined, the church’s organ, only a few years old, was underwater, and the cellars were filled. The building’s stability needs to be determined before any work is done, he said.

“The church at Fort Kent will be disabled for a very long time,” he said. “We won’t be back into the church for services for a long time, maybe as long as six months.

“There won’t be weddings going down the aisle, there won’t be funerals there,” he said.

Parish offices will be moved to a religious education building on Pleasant Street. He asked for volunteers at the office and for the cleanup. Some were already there Friday and Saturday, as they were everywhere in town.

“Let’s all come together and get through this destruction,” Nadeau told his flock. “This church was built by parishioners who came together years ago. It’s the same today … . Eyes are watching us to see what we are made of. This is our time.”

His words were greeted with loud applause.

The intercession prayers after the sermon included a plea “for all members of our parish community that they may find the courage to carry on.”

“The town is in salvage mode,” Nadeau said. “Let’s all stick together and we will be all right.”

To receive assistance, residents should call their local police dispatchers or town offices.

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