HOULTON, Maine — Heavy rains in southern Aroostook County over the summer have washed out local roads to varying degrees, causing headaches for public works. But town roads are not the only ones damaged.
Roads in Houlton’s Evergreen Cemetery and St. Mary’s Cemetery, on opposite sides of Smyrna Street, have been victims of Mother Nature as well.
Weather often contributes to deterioration on Maine roads, but the heavy rain this year during some storms has been extra destructive, especially in places such as cemeteries where the passageways tend to be gravel and don’t have ditching, sloping or other features meant to handle water runoff.
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“The complaints with the cemetery roads were legitimate,” Cemetery Director Milton Cone said. “We had roads that had basically washed completely out. And it has probably happened three times this season already.”
Cone said the washouts are directly attributed to what he described as a “weird” weather pattern southern Aroostook County has experienced this summer. On at least three occasions, the area has seen massive sudden outbursts of rain, some dropping as much as 1.5 inches of rain in less than an hour.
Mal Walker, lead meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Caribou, said Friday that storms of this nature are not entirely uncommon for northern Maine. He added that this year’s bigger rain storms are not attributable to any major changes in the climate.
“It really is the luck of the draw with these storms,” Walker said. “Summer rains always have the potential for heavier outbursts. You can sometimes get several inches of water in a short amount of time and that can result in some serious damage.”
Water can be a powerful force, moving trees, cars and even houses given enough force, he said.
“Our mantra has always been ‘Turn around, don’t drown’,” he said.
On Thursday morning, some roads in the cemetery were still showing signs of erosion, with visible trenches several inches deep in them.
The problem is exacerbated by there no longer being a cemetery maintenance crew on staff, leaving it to private contractors or the Houlton Public Works Department to repair damage.
“Public works has helped us out tremendously, but they also have their own work to do,” Cone said. “We realize that public roads have priority.”
His department has done its best to keep up with the damage and recently spent nearly two full days working to fix the erosion in the cemeteries caused by excessive rains, said Chris Stewart, director of public works.
“The concern with the roads was the very deep washouts that happened throughout the summer months,” Stewart said.
He added that the town, like many in Aroostook County, experienced some issues with water runoff from the heavy rain storms this summer, some of which dropped more than an inch an hour.
“We work constantly to keep the catch basins and the shoulders of roadways clear of debris and winter sand build-up,” Stewart said. “It is a constant battle. Part of the public works work plan is to repair damage done by heavy rains and spring runoff. Ditching and road slopes and road repair is the key to containing storm water.”
The crew used two 1-ton trucks, a backhoe, a compact tractor, a compact roller and a wheeled loader that filled the trucks at the town’s gravel pit on Smyrna Street. Stewart said his department hauled 27 loads of material, roughly the equivalent of 80 yards of gravel, to the cemeteries this year.
In addition, asphalt millings — ground up asphalt usually removed from road surfaces — were placed in the deep trenches, with the hopes that by using a compact roller the material might stay in the roads a little better.
Unlike town roads, the gravel cemetery passageways have no ditching, leaving water to follow the path of least resistance. There also is extensive ledge in some places, making it difficult to provide a strong base for gravel.
There was no additional cost to the town for the cemetery road repairs, just time taken away from other road projects, Stewart said.
Cone added he cannot recall, in his 48 years with the town, a time when so much damage has been caused by something as simple as rain.
“We had some (cemetery) roads that were washed out so bad that they probably should have been blocked off completely,” Cone said. “I have not seen anything to this extent.”
While the town has done its best to keep the cemetery roads open, there is no guarantee they will stay that way without some major work done to them, he said.
“If we have rains like we have had before, I am certain this (washouts) will happen again,” he said.