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.