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Jul 22, 2014 1:12 PM

Winchester likely to face flood repair bill without federal help

By Meghan Foley Sentinel Staff

WINCHESTER — What took torrential rains hours to wash away, the town’s highway crew will try to rebuild in a week.
The Winchester Board of Selectmen gave the go-ahead to the town’s highway department Monday morning to begin rebuilding a large section of Old Westport Road that was annihilated by flash flooding last week.
The goal, selectmen Chairman Roberta Fraser said Monday afternoon, is to have one lane of the road open to through traffic by the end of the week.
Meanwhile, it appears unlikely that the town will be able to receive funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency despite the widespread damage caused by the storms that began the night of July 15 and ended the next day on July 16.
Of all the Monadnock Region’s communities, Winchester sustained the worst damage, with at least 12 roads washed out and residents living in 26 homes off six of the roads being stranded for some time.
Of the 26 residences affected, only three at the top of Purcell Road remained inaccessible by car as of Monday, town officials said.
Selectmen Sherman Tedford said Monday a contractor is scheduled to tend to that section of Purcell Road Friday, which needs to be ground up and resurfaced.
Some flooding was also reported in other areas last week, including Keene.
Damage costs must meet both county and state thresholds for a community just to be considered for FEMA assistance, said Michael D. Todd, public information officer with the N.H. Department of Safety.
Based on early estimates, the amount of damage Winchester received would be enough to reach the $269,000 threshold for Cheshire County, but not the $1.8 million threshold for the state.
In Winchester, early damage estimates are in the range of $600,000 to $700,000, but town officials have yet to receive final numbers, Fraser said Monday afternoon.
For the 2014-15 fiscal year, which began July 1, the town has an operating budget of about $3.3 million and a highway department budget of roughly $500,000.
Town officials hope they can get most of what needs to get done finished by just using the highway department budget, Fraser said. But without federal emergency funding, they expect they’ll have to look at other options — include bonding and asking the state to allow the town to use its unreserved fund balance, she said.
“We’re probably going to be looking for hundreds of thousands of dollars we don’t have,” she said.
At this time, four road paving projects planned for this year have been put on hold as well as some water and sewer work, Tedford said.
Selectmen have yet to discuss whether spending in other town department should be put on hold, he said, but the town needs to continue to operate for its residents.
For the remainder of the week, pending any emergencies, the highway department has been asked to focus on Old Westport Road so it can be reopened as quickly as possible, according to Fraser.
Highway crews are limited to opening one lane on the side of the road opposite the Ashuelot River because engineering work must be done before the road on the river side is rebuilt, she said.
Cars and large vehicles can get to residences and businesses on Old Westport Road and connecting streets that are south of the washout. But north of the washout, access is limited to vehicles under the weight and height restrictions of the Coombs Bridge.
As a temporary solution, town officials got permission from Mitchell Sand and Gravel off Route 10 to have highway and fire trucks cross the property to get to Old Swanzey Road, which connects to Old Westport Road.
But that solution isn’t working as well as town officials had hoped, as highway and fire trucks were having trouble getting through the area, Fraser said Monday.
“We need to get the road reopened,” she said. “It’s come down to a public safety issue.”
It appears the section of Old Westport Road was first undermined by the Ashuelot River before a tributary on the other side overflowed, taking out the rest of the roadway, she said. The area that washed out didn’t have a culvert or any other drainage structure.
Road Agent Dale Gray said the washed-out area is the length of “a couple hundred feet.”
Gray and other members of the highway department spent Monday afternoon cutting and removing trees that had fallen into the gully during the flood. The gully, which was filled with crashing and fast-moving water last week, is now a pool of calm water with rising dirt and stone cliffs on either side.
Fraser and Tedford stood along the road pulling aside tree branches as they were placed at the top of one of the cliffs.
Both said residents, along with local businesses and contractors, had come forward over the past few days with donations of equipment, materials and manpower to help rebuild Old Westport Road and other streets.
State highway crews have also come forward to help, they said.
In a statement this morning, William H. Boynton, public information officer for the N.H. Department of Transportation, said, “The Town of Winchester is doing an excellent job in repairing the damage to local roads from the recent storm. The NH Department of Transportation is providing expertise and limited assistance with three or four trucks from Highway Maintenance District 4 being used to transport materials.”
With a four-person highway department, the offers of assistance have been appreciated, Winchester officials said.
Besides the short-term repairs, there is now the long-term to worry about too, Tedford said.
Last week was the third time this summer Winchester fell victim to flash flooding. Besides road washouts, flooding has damaged some homes and properties around town. And more rain is expected this week with thunderstorms predicted for today and Wednesday.
The town’s drainage infrastructure, including culverts, is likely something officials will have to look into, especially following the most recent flooding, Tedford said.
And funding for that will be tough to come by, too, he said.


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