Citizens become damkeepers during Hurricane Irene, saving homes from floodwaters
Audrey Foster woke up with a start about 3 a.m. Sunday.
As Hurricane Irene came ashore, wind-blown rain hammered at the screened-in porch where Foster was sitting up with a flickering oil lamp, tide charts, and a transistor radio.
She had dozed during her watch, and now conditions had worsened: The English Creek, a tributary of the Great Egg Harbor River, had carved a new path through her front yard while she slept, Foster said.
"I could see - even though it was dark - water running over the banks of the the pond through my yard," she said. "It had pulled up the sod, and everything was underwater."
Foster, whose 18th-century home sits beside the spillway of the Somers Mill Pond dam in Egg Harbor Township, was one of the few private citizens who stayed up through the storm to monitor dams on their properties.
Like the municipal and state officials who watched over Lake Lenape in Hamilton Township and South Jersey's other dams, these damkeepers worked for days to ensure their neighbors - both downstream and up - avoided the worst of the flooding.
Larry Hajna, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said larger dams, particularly the reservoirs in North Jersey, are operated by water utilities.
Small dams, meanwhile, are owned by a combination of counties, homeowners' associations, municipalities, and other private entities, he said.
While governmental bodies scrambled to activate their emergency plans, groups such as the Collings Lakes Civic Association rallied to save their own homes.
"It's really hard when you have an organization where you're all volunteers and nobody gets paid to do anything," said Steve Baily, the group's dam manager. "But when something happens, everyone comes out to help."
Prior to the storm, Baily, 59, of Buena Vista Township, removed several of the six-inch-wide boards that control the flow of water through the community's four dams. That lowered lake levels by a few feet before the storm, he said.
On Saturday evening, Baily said, he stayed awake in his house by Lake George until 3:30 a.m., checking in constantly with homeowners monitoring the other lakes.
"It was a little nerve-racking," he said. "We had a generator, we were prepared, but just watching the water come up so fast - I could not believe it."
The rain - which followed an Aug. 14 storm that dropped nearly a foot of rain on the lakes - was unprecedented, he said.
"I had lowered (the lakes) to where you could see the stumps, but within hours the storm had covered them again, and a few hours later the lake was overflowing," he said.
The stumps of cedar trees cut down to make way for cranberry bogs in the 1940s predate the residential community - which encompasses parts of Buena Vista and Folsom in Atlantic County and Monroe Township in Gloucester County - by several decades. Baily said they rarely jut out of the water.
Two hours of restless sleep later, at 5:30 a.m., Baily awoke to find the emergency spillways had activated and the lake had claimed 60 feet of his backyard, the highest water he'd seen in his 30 years living on the lake.
"I can't imagine what would have happened if we didn't lower the lakes," he said. "If I got a foot and a half over my bulkhead after lowering the lake, I know houses would've been flooded (had it not)."
Since the storm, Baily said he has not received any reports of injuries or serious flooding along the Collings Lakes.
Buena Vista Mayor Chuck Chiarello said Collings Lakes, despite a broken spillway from August's storms at the Cushman Lake dam, escaped worse flooding.
But Fred Akers, administrator of the Great Egg Harbor River Council and Watershed Association, said not all damkeepers are so vigilant.
Akers said dams on private land are the responsibility of property owners. Although a breach could potentially affect hundreds or thousands downstream, he said little government aid is available for their maintenance.
"Whether (the dam owners) embrace the responsibility of maintaining or managing the dam or not depends on individual ethics," he said.
And most dams, regardless of ownership, are too small to accommodate increases in runoff from development, Akers said.
In 2004, the DEP referred seven dams in Atlantic and Cumberland counties to the state Attorney General's Office for alleged violations of the state's Dam Safety Act. One of those dams, the Sunset Lake Raceway dam in Bridgeton, failed after Hurricane Irene.
Watching her centuries-old dam in Egg Harbor Township is a responsibility Foster takes seriously.
If the water level in the pond rose too fast, Foster said, her neighbors upstream could be flooded. If water flowed too quickly through the locks, neighbors downstream would experience a sudden wave of water.
"Before the storm, I got out the crowbar and started pulling the planks," she said. "I lowered the pond level another nine inches because we were told to expect about 10 inches of rain."
But Foster said the situation was also out of her control. If the tides came in too fast or too high, water would back up English Creek to the dam, leaving pond water with nowhere to go.
Foster's partner, Ventnor-based attorney Frank Ferry, said liability is a concern, but any lawsuits would likely be dismissed on the grounds that any damage would be attributed to a natural disaster.
The same water that flowed through their spillway damaged a section of a bridge on Somers Point-Mays Landing Road one mile south of the dam, which remained closed Thursday. The adjacent Zion Road bridge, however, was not damaged.
On Saturday night, Foster waited on her screened-in porch, ready to act if the water came too quickly.
"I wanted to be in position to do more to save my house if I had to," she said. "I didn't want any surprises."
Despite English Creek's detour through Foster's front yard and the resulting cleanup, Foster said the worst-case scenarios - a high tide pushing water upstream or rain coming too fast for the dam to handle - didn't happen.
For all her anxiety, Foster said Ferry slept through the worst of the storm.
"Frank slept through the whole thing while I sat there by my oil lamp listening to weather reports," she said.
"I can sleep in the dental chair," Ferry said. "That night, Audrey was on guard."
Contact Wallace McKelvey: