STOCKBRIDGE — The town has declared a state of emergency as an ice jam on the Houstaonic River continues to threaten local flooding near the South Street (Route 7) bridge just south of the downtown business district.
The Select Board voted unanimously to adopt the declaration on Wednesday night after hearing an update on the dicey situation from Chris Marsden, the town's emergency management director and facilities manager.
The crisis developed Saturday morning as massive chunks of ice cut off the river's flow, causing a rise in water levels that could have threatened homes along East Main Street and flood-prone Park Street, as well as the industrial park on Depot Street and the gas station in South Street.
Berkshire Gas officials and Great Barrington Fire Chief Charles Burger were alerted, Marsden pointed out, since the South Street Bridge carries a crucial four-inch natural gas main that's the only supply for Great Barrington.
"The gas main is a big concern for us, for Great Barrington, for Berkshire Gas," Marsden said. "The integrity of the South Street Bridge, I'm confident that it's in good shape."
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation was alerted to keep tabs on the condition of the bridge.
Massachusetts Emergency Management was also notified about the ice jam and its potential impact on the area, Marsden added.
"My observation is that this is the worst section of the river," he said. "I don't believe the Housatonic has a situation as critical as this particular spot, with free-flowing water upstream coming into the oxbows before the golf course. There are snags on the riverbanks, a lot of switchbacks, the ice is just getting hung up in there."
Following two days of record-breaking warmth and nearly 3 inches of rain on Friday and early Saturday, Selectman Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo, also the town's fire chief, first spotted the dangerous ice jams, Marsden said.
"The rate of the rising water was something neither one of us had ever seen," Marsden said. "It was rather alarming."
Town Administrator Danielle Fillio issued a reverse-911 alert to affected town residents, he added. Plans were made to open an emergency shelter at the Town Offices if needed, organized by local volunteers Jorja-Ann Marsden and Keith Raftery.
Fairview Hospital's Emergency Management Director Heather Barbieri was also alerted in case the need developed for an emergency operations command post. She assisted with preparations at the Town Offices while Police Chief Darrell Fennelly, Cardillo and Marsden monitored river water levels.
By noon Saturday, the immediate threat had eased, Marsden noted. But now, the ice jam has migrated downstream toward the Stockbridge Golf Course along "a lazy stretch of the river that's actually our flood plain," he said.
Following a deep freeze spell this week, there's concern that another potential heavy rainfall and warmup could be "more disastrous," he warned.
"Not to be alarmist, we do need to monitor this situation moving forward," he said.
As a result, the National Weather Service in Albany, N.Y., has formed a forecast team and plans a series of conference calls with Stockbridge officials to relay severe weather updates.
In order to assess the condition of the ice jam, Marsden has arranged for a flyover by the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office's drone.
Describing a potential worst-case scenario, the Army Corps of Engineers might be needed to break up the ice jam, Marsden pointed out.
"I appreciate the coordination by everybody," Select Board Chairman Donald Chabon told Marsden. "It seemed like it worked smoothly."
Marsden recommended that the board declare a local state of emergency retroactive to Saturday morning, leaving it in place until the river is clear of ice.
While the declaration makes Stockbridge eligible for federal aid if needed, its most important impact is to allow the town to secure services, goods and equipment immediately on an emergency basis, eliminating the often-lengthy, formal municipal and state procurement regulations.
"The document may never go beyond the file," Marsden acknowledged, "but we have it in place if it's needed."
Ironically, on Tuesday night, the town's emergency warning sirens had gone off for no apparent reason, Marsden confirmed. Fillio sent out a robocall to town residents who have registered with her office for the phone alerts, reassuring them that it was a mistake and there was no danger.
"We're not going to let our guard down, we have to keep on this," Marsden said. "From an emergency management standpoint, this is an active incident. I have a feeling Mother Nature is going to dictate our actions, going forward."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com or 413-637-2551.