TRAVERSE CITY — Ed and Mary Flees' anxiety grew as the swollen Boardman River crept toward their home on Brown Bridge Road.
They'd spent five decades together there, perched on a lovely stretch of the Boardman, the first house downstream from Brown Bridge Dam and about 10 miles southeast of downtown Traverse City.
On Saturday morning they watched in alarm as the Boardman grew muddy and burst its seams. "Heartbreak," Mary Flees thought as water pushed within feet of their home, the result of a breach that unleashed countless tons of water into the Boardman and abruptly emptied Brown Bridge Pond.
"I just know it's close enough I could stand on my deck and fish right now," Flees said Saturday at about 2 p.m. as the couple waited, their two cars loaded with clothing, dogs, electronics and other valuables, and readied for a run to safety.
The Flees' weren't forced to evacuate, but others on the river sustained home and property damage in a stunning development in a years-in-the-making project to dismantle Boardman River dams and return the river to much of its natural flow path.
Now come the questions. Chiefly, what happened?
'Dewatering structure' suspect
Saturday's breach started at approximately 10 a.m., said Chuck Lombardo, spokesman for the Boardman River Dams Project Implementation Team.
The breach unfolded at a part of the dam removal project known as the "dewatering structure." The structure consists of two steel walls and large logs erected immediately adjacent to the dam.
The structure is designed to allow for the slow and gradual release of water from Brown Bridge Pond into the river.
But somehow, on Saturday morning, water from the pond circumvented the structure's two steel walls and made its own path toward the river.
"Water began to breach around the dam and around the dewatering structure, causing the release of a high volume of water into the Boardman River downstream from the (dam,)" Lombardo said. "We saw quite a bit of high water."
Exactly what caused the water to make its own path to the river is unknown, said Ben Bifoss, city manager in Traverse City.
Dan Scott, Grand Traverse County's emergency program manager, learned of breach at 11:15 a.m. He described the breach as a "major incident."
Lombardo said the breach caused the river to rise as much as five feet in spots.
"At that time, we were very concerned," Scott said. "Extremely concerned about the dam holding."
Scott and Bifoss rushed to the scene. There they saw water billowing, "moving adjacent to the spillway."
Firefighters were dispatched to evacuate residents in the Boardman River Valley, on River Road, and the county declared a state of emergency.
Flooding in the area of the Garfield Road Bridge threatened three homes. Water entered at least one residence and prompted authorities to close Garfield Road.
"We had to close Garfield Road down at the bridge because the water had risen to just below the foundation of the bridge," Scott said. "The deck of the bridge."
Authorities could not say how many people were evacuated. They were directed to emergency shelters in Kingsley and the Salvation Army on Barlow Street in Traverse City. Some residents stayed behind, despite the flooding threat, said Pat Parker, Grand Traverse Metro Fire Chief.
"That's their right," Parker said. "We are getting their name and addresses, and we do have some debris moving down the river — propane tanks and logs."
Floating debris was not a major public safety concern, Parker said.
"The dams close to us, the Boardman and the Sabin, there's places that will catch that debris, and if we have to we'll bring in heavy equipment to remove that," Parker said.
Heavy equipment, stones, rocks, concrete
Scott said construction crews scrambled to block the breach with any construction materials available.
"They've got a ton of heavy equipment out there right now," Scott said Saturday afternoon. "They are doing everything they can do. They are hauling in heavy stones and rocks and concrete."
By 3:30 p.m., attempts to stem the flow of water began to work. The water flow dropped around eight inches in the course of about 20 minutes.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and other regulators soon will begin to probe what caused the flood, Bifoss said.
"I'm confident there will be investigations for weeks and weeks and weeks," he said.
The long-term impacts on the river and the dam removal project were unknown as of Saturday evening. But tons of sediment flushed from Brown Bridge Pond swept along the river course.
Brown Bridge Pond bottomlands looked like a wet, mud-covered cemetery of old stumps by 5:30 p.m.
"What was supposed to happen over 18 to 20 days happened today," Lombardo said.
Bifoss said it likely wouldn't be known for days what caused the breach. He said dam demolition general contractor Molon Excavating will bear all costs for damages, according to project contract terms.
Frank Dituri, who chairs the implementation phase of the Boardman project, called the incident a worst case scenario.
DEQ dams supervisor Jim Pawloski said damage could have been worse if steel pilings had washed downstream.
The flood swamped six to eight houses, officials said late Saturday. Lombardo said Molon and the other project officials will contact affected river residents. Anyone who needs cleanup assistance as a result of the flooding can call the county's Scott at (231) 995-6059.
Sometime after 4 p.m., residents like Ed and Mary Flees took their first deep breath in hours as the river began to recede.
It's wasn't long before their relief again turned to concern. The Boardman's flow suddenly turned to a trickle. Gravel and silt bars sprung from the riverbed, and fish — trout, bass, pike — flopped and gasped on the emergent land.
"There's a big gravel area right in the middle of river that never existed," Mary Flees said at about 5:45. "There's fish dying. Huge fish. There's lots of fish now. They're out of the water."
Later, the Flees' hiked to the scene and gaped at what used to be Brown Bridge Pond but suddenly had been reduced to debris and muck bottom.
"Six hours, boom, it's over with," Mary Flees said.