WPI Student Project Helps Maine Town Recover from Flood

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WORCESTER, Mass. – December 21, 2004 – When a 100-year flood hit the western Maine town of Canton just before Christmas last year, town leaders already had a plan to relocate the flooded downtown out of the floodplain. Just seven months earlier, a pair of undergraduate civil engineering students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) completed their senior project on how to prevent just such a disaster. Before the floodwaters had receded, the student report was put to use for the town’s flood relief, recovery and mitigation efforts.

As a part of their WPI senior capstone project (known on campus a Major Qualifying Project), “Design of a New Central Village for Canton, Maine,” students Joseph Frawley ‘03 and Marcela Skorik ’03 studied alternatives and made recommendations the previous spring for relocating the center of the town outside of the floodplain. The students’ work was intended to serve as the basis for the floodplain management portion of the long-term comprehensive plan that the town was developing. However, their 100-odd page report was put to use much sooner than anyone had expected.

A week before Christmas, the Androscoggin River and several tributaries in western Maine flooded due to rain, snowmelt and ice jams. Canton (65 miles north of Portland) saw some of the worst damage, with its central village being flooded, more than 30 families in the town of roughly 1,100 displaced, and the disaster’s largest single evacuation (100 people) from a nursing home. With the town’s elementary school and only fire station (structures typically used for disaster shelters and relief efforts) lying in the floodplain, many residents had to seek shelter outside of Canton.

When a disaster was declared, the town needed to quickly provide data to the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to be able to access funds for flood relief, recovery and mitigation. It didn’t take the town long, since the students’ report contained much of the data that was needed. The students had already cataloged the town’s buildings and completed a survey of the 45 structures in the floodplain. This survey included such vital information as the size of the structure, the type of foundation, and the height above the base flood elevation.

“The WPI student report became an integral part of our planning process before and after the flood. It served as the basis for many of our grant applications and their source pieces of data were used as a foundation for our broader objective of completing our overall comprehensive plan for the town,” recalls Diane Ray, Canton’s special projects coordinator.

The flood mitigation plan was so thorough that it received praise from state officials. “Only one other town in Maine has done this level of flood mitigation,” adds Ray. “And with the help of the WPI students, our plan has been singled out by MEMA as an example of what floodplain management should be in every town.”

The student project was the brainchild of WPI Associate Professor of civil and environmental engineering Malcolm H. Ray. As a resident of Canton (and a relative of the town’s special projects coordinator), he saw the problems the town’s central village was facing from high risk of floods, economic decline of the current central village, and sprawl of recent town development. As a WPI faculty member, he knew that all WPI students need to complete a senior project (or MQP) to use what they’ve learned in their major discipline to solve a significant professional-level problem or master a research challenge. So, he interested Frawley and Skorik in the town’s problems and worked with the town to advise their project to investigate relocating the central village.

After months of work, the students provided two alternatives for relocating the village and numerous recommendations. The two proposed locations for a new central village would create more than 100 residential lots and focus much of the growth over the next 50 years in a concentrated village instead of allowing that growth to sprawl throughout the town. Sprawl was also addressed by relocating the elementary school, fire station, and municipal building to a central location in the center of the new village.

Once the town selected a location for the village, the students recommended that the residential and municipal structures that face the greatest danger of damage from flooding should be moved to the new village or demolished so that new structures can be built in the new village. Their survey of town buildings using flood mitigation criteria identified 23 structures that need to be removed from their current locations (17 residential structures and four municipal).

The infrastructure planning for moving Canton’s central village is well under way. Talks have begun with current landowners, and a plan for structural and infrastructure work on utilities and sewers is scheduled to be completed late in the spring of 2005.