A third day of rain pushed eastern Massachusetts to a tipping point today as a relentless northeaster sent rivers and streams spilling over their banks, overwhelmed sewer systems, flooded major roads and forced hundreds to leave their homes ahead of advancing waters.
The unusually persistent late-winter storm, which dropped more than 10 inches of rain on Boston over a 72-hour span, prompted Governor Deval Patrick to declare a state of emergency and forced the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority to empty untreated sewage into Quincy Bay for the first time in five years.
In Waltham, where the storm-choked Charles River had surged to its highest level in recent memory and the city opened a temporary shelter to handle the rush of evacuees, Patrick said the storm had inflicted heavy damage across swaths of the state.
"The sheer volume of water is the Number One problem right now,'' Patrick said at an afternoon press conference. "I've never seen flooding like this."
As the storm set a one-day precipitation record and appeared destined to be marked one of the worst in more than a decade, officials anxiously watched strained dams and bridges. And, perhaps in testament to the wearying ubiquity of water, an MBTA official believed he spotted a fish skittering across the platform at the commuter rail station in Wilmington, which was closed temporarily at the height of the flooding.
With the rising Charles posing a growing threat to the Moody Street dam in Waltham, crews brought in sandbags after being unable to open several gates atop a spillway to relieve the pressure on the dam.
"It's obviously pretty much at capacity," said Rick Sullivan Jr., commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Recreation . Sullivan said engineers are not concerned about a breach, but planned to bring in small boulders to bolster a dam wall beside a historic mill building.
In West Warwick, R.I., crews scrambled to shore up a dam on the Pawtuxet River, which had surged to a record 14 feet.
The storm was expected to begin moving out to sea overnight, but officials warned that floodwaters would likely continue to wreak havoc and hamper recovery efforts.
"A number of rivers may not crest until Tuesday or Wednesday," said Scott MacLeod, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. "It's going to take a while for all this water to make its way to some of the larger rivers."
Along the coast, high waves crashed against the shoreline, leading to heavy erosion. In Topsfield, the swollen Ipswich River flooded Route 1, closing the thoroughfare in both directions for hours. In Melrose, flooding closed portions of the Fellsway and forced the evacuation of some 150 residents of a public housing complex. In Quincy, emergency crews used boats to evacuate some 100 tenants of a seven-story apartment building on Furnace Parkway, and several dozen others fled swamped homes elsewhere in the city.
In Peabody, often hard-hit by heavy rainfall, much of downtown was closed, with some city streets under four feet of water. At one point, firefighters used a motor boat to get down Walnut Street, where a car had started to float.
"When you get six inches of rain, where is it going to go?" asked Chris Tighe, the city's emergency management director. "We need it to stop raining."
In Newton, a 50-foot-wide sinkhole opened yesterday beneath a portion of the Green Line, washing out the track bed and likely shutting down service for days to come. In Boston, subway crews near Fenway Park laid down sandbags near a tunnel entrance to prevent a repeat of 1996, when flooding from the nearby Muddy River caused millions of dollars in damage.
The river, just over 7 feet before the storm, had risen to over 15 feet today before it began to recede.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino assembled response teams to survey the damage from the northeaster, which some officials described as a once-in-a-generation event.
State officials kept watchful eyes on several dams, particularly the collapsing, two-century-old Forge Pond Dam in Freetown, which threatened to give way in February. "We have it under a 24-hour watch," Sullivan said.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees 31 federal dams in New England, said the structures were operating normally despite the intense rainfall.
Travel around eastern Massachusetts proved a chore. Unlike major snowstorms, when schools and workplaces typically close, many were open today, bringing large numbers of commuters to waterlogged roads. During the morning rush hour, commutes were twice as long as usual, and nearly as bad in the evening. On Route 2 near Alewife Station in Cambridge, floods had closed four of six lanes, causing delays throughout the area. Those searching for small-road shortcuts found that many of those were closed, too.
Flights at Logan International Airport were delayed, as were several bus routes.
"It's been raining since Saturday morning," Jeffrey Mullan, the state transportation secretary, said this afternoon. "It's just a lot of water."
Officials were uncertain how long the problems would linger, but anticipated that Tuesday's commute could see continued flooding at Route 1 in Topsfield, Route 20 in Sudbury, and Route 2 near Alewife Station.
"This storm is just constantly evolving," said Colin Durrant, spokesman for the state transportation department. "We're just going to have to wait and see what happens to the waters that have risen."
The storm also overburdened septic systems. With its plant on Nut Island in Quincy overflowing, the MWRA was forced to empty untreated waste into Quincy Bay.
"It's really to save the station," said Ria Convery, a MWRA spokesman. "If it fills up with water, we've got bigger troubles."
Convery said the controlled release is mostly water and is permitted under environmental regulations in an emergency. Officials plan to test the water for elevated bacteria levels. Raw sewage was also released into the Mystic River.
The Nut Island plant feeds the larger treatment plant on Deer Island, which has been running at capacity for 48 hours. Each day, the plant has handled 1.3 billion gallons of flow, compared to 360 million on a normal day.
Forecasters said the rain is expected to taper off, but warned that many flooded rivers will not return to normal levels for days.
"Nothing is going to drain like it usually does," said Matthew Belk, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Taunton.
Battling soggy basements and swamp-like lawns, residents could readily testify.
"It looks like a tornado went through here," said Cheryl Lovett, a Melrose resident who saw a falling pine tree pull down two telephone poles. "My neighbor's yard looks like a pool. I'm expecting to see ducks running through there in a minute."
Through all the gloom and bother, Gwyneth Sheen remained upbeat. Her basement in Brighton had flooded for the first time in 16 years. But she saw a gleam through the drear.
"At least we donít have to shovel it," she said.
John Ellement and John Guilfoil of the Globe staff and correspondents Shana Wickett, Jessica Rudis, Alix Roy, and Jason Woods contributed to this report.
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