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Whitco

'The devastation was unbelievable'


Residents recall '55 flood on 55th anniversary



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The floodwaters rose nearly to the first floor ceiling of this house in “The Flats” part of town, near American Optical. Photo courtesy dickwhitney.net. (click for larger version)
August 22, 2010
SOUTHBRIDGE — While last Thursday was a nearly perfect summer day, for some local residents, the date sparked memories of a day that was anything but serene.

On Aug. 19, 1955, after a week of rain, megatons of water poured out of Charlton's Glen Echo Dam and the West Street Dam to inundate a large swath of eastern Southbridge, literally moving triple-deckers, destroying bridges, and leaving the town cut in half along the Quinebaug River. The area dubbed "The Flats" was under around 10 feet of water that left a foot of mud behind, but almost nobody died.

"You could see trees, houses, even apartment houses going down the river," recalled Richard Caouette, who was 15 at the time and spent the aftermath biking through the mud as a messenger and "gopher" for the National Guard.

One of the most memorable incidents, he said, involved a man named Napoleon St. Laurent. Although there had been enough warning to evacuate the area, St. Laurent refused to leave his third floor apartment on the grounds the water would not get that high. It didn't — instead, the building itself floated away. Caouette said St. Laurent sent a Morse code SOS by flashlight for three days thereafter until he was rescued.

Richard Harwood also remembered that, noting the building ended up being wedged between two other buildings. He was in his late 20s and spent much of the next several weeks assessing the damage for a local bank.

"It was so tragic to go into those homes," he said. "Everything above 3 or 4 feet was spotless, but that silt got into everything. It was like powdered sugar. … Those people worked so hard to get where they were, and it was all gone in an hour."

For more on this story, please see Monday's Southbridge Evening News.

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