Willow Grove Lake in Cumberland County spills over, threatens to flood parts of Vineland
Cumberland County officials were waiting Monday to see if Willow Grove Lake, swollen by heavy rains from Hurricane Irene, would breach Weymouth Road overnight and leave sections of Vineland under several feet of water.
Work crews trying to repair damaged parts of Weymouth Road during the day remained on the scene Monday night and were joined by New Jersey National Guard units standing by to make any needed rescues.
Cumberland County Deputy Administrator Kimberly Wood said officials expected Weymouth Road to wash out and flood the North Vineland section of Vineland. Cumberland County Freeholder Director William Whelan said from the scene about an hour later that officials were hoping the repairs would hold.
Wood said more than 100 people living near Willow Grove Lake, especially those on Riverside Drive and Maurice River Parkway, obeyed mandatory evacuation orders issued Monday morning. Those people could be out of their homes — some of which were surrounded by several feet of water Monday night — for up to 36 hours, she said. Vineland Police Capt. Thomas Ulrich said the city opened an evacuation shelter for those residents at a firehouse on West Forest Grove Road.
Should Weymouth Road be breached, water would not only pour through North Vineland, but would also flow into the Maurice River and reach Union Lake in Millville. The Maurice River also flows out of Union Lake.
Residents in the low-lying Holly Village and Country Meadows communities south of Union Lake were evacuated Monday morning so the lake’s floodgates could be opened. Whelan said officials wanted to lower the lake’s water level by about 25 percent, adding that the water level had dropped by several inches by 7 p.m.
The flooding caused problems for residents outside Millville and Vineland, too.
High water closed portions of Garden, Almond and Weymouth roads, Sharp Street and Sherman Avenue, which are major routes within Cumberland County. Sherman Avenue provides the quickest access between the western half of the county and the county’s only hospital, South Jersey Regional Medical Center in Vineland.
With those roads stopping easy travel, motorists were scuffling to find detours. The eastbound lane of Route 49 was clogged through Millville with motorists using the highway as an alternate route through Cumberland County.
Cumberland County officials said much of their flooding problem was caused by water overflowing Iona Lake in Gloucester County. Much of that water eventually reached Willow Grove Lake.
Wood said Monday afternoon that protective measures taken at Iona Lake stabilized the dam and spillway there. Waters at Iona Lake were receding, which took pressure off of Willow Grove Lake, she said.
Joe and Joan Giocondo, who live on Weymouth Road next to Willow Grove Lake, heeded the evacuation order. Joan Giocondo said water on the lake started rising on Saturday, but the level began rising at a faster rate on Sunday. The rising water started flooding the basement rather quickly, she said.
“It was coming in pretty fast,” she said.
Joseph Giocondo said he was prepared for possible high water problems, and at one point had four pumps working to keep the basement empty of water. Some of the pumps stopped working as the day progressed, he said.
“This is the worst it’s ever been,” Joan Giocondo said.
The Willow Grove Lake dam and spillway was damaged by bad weather in 2007. Owned by the Nature Conservancy, the lake is on the border of Cumberland and Salem counties. Officials in both counties have squabbled since 2007 about making repairs to the dam and spillway. They agreed earlier this month to split the cost of engineering work involving improvements to the dam and spillway.
During a recent meeting of the Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders, some county officials again said it’s up to Salem County to pay for the bulk of the repair cost. Cumberland County Solicitor Brendan Kavanagh said he expects the county to pay about a 30-percent share of the cost.
Millville Rescue Squad Chief John Redden said he got the call about 9:40 a.m. to evacuate Holly Village on Silver Run Road as a flood-risk site caused by the draining of Union Lake. He said it wasn’t easy to convince people to leave when the sun was out and the hurricane long gone.
“I had to visit one person three times to convince them it could get dangerous,” he said. “They kept saying, ‘But the storm is over..’”
Cumberland County sheriff’s officers parked at the entrances to Holly Village, taking names and allowing people to return home just briefly for medications and a few necessities.
“I’ve got a brand new place, so it should be OK,” Jim Grennon said as he loaded up his vehicle.
Nearby, neighbors wondered what to do about their cats, and some residents took their dogs on leashes to the rescue-squad headquarters. The rescue squad provided sandwiches, cake and coffee and promised more comfortable accommodations should evacuees need to stay the night.
Guisippi Simonini, 84, sat with his case of dated medications and WWII veteran’s cap.
“I was in the Navy,” he said. “I went through typhoons. This is nothing.”
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A complete list of Cumberland County roads that are closed, fully open or open with impediments – such as water or downed trees – can be found at www.co.cumberland.nj.us.