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Officials still fear dam collapse

Break in Massachusetts could leave town under 8 feet of water

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TAUNTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Water pouring through a 173-year-old wooden dam protecting Taunton has placed increasing strain on the structure, and officials said Tuesday they fear it could collapse.

"If the dam were to break ... we will see rising floodwaters in downtown Taunton," Mayor Robert Nunes told reporters. "We are monitoring the situation minute-by-minute."

The water coming through Whittenton Pond Dam on the Mill River was causing "excessive vibration, which is a concern," he said.

Authorities said they believe the bottom part of the dam has rotted out and the vibrations on the structure could eventually lead to a full collapse.

Such a scenario could spell as much as 8 feet of water for downtown Taunton, a city of roughly 56,000 people about 30 miles south of Boston. (Watch town residents brace for flooding as dam deteriorates -- 1:24)

Officials have been told there is no way to immediately fix the problem, Nunes said. "We have been advised that would not be a good situation."

Another major concern is that if the Whittenton Pond Dam goes, then another dam about a half mile away, the Morey's Bridge Dam -- also 173 years old -- might also burst, sending as much as 12 feet of water through the area.

Whittenton Pond Dam, itself 12 feet high, holds back the waters of Lake Sabbatia on the Mill River, which swelled because of heavy rain in the Northeast last week.

Matt Bellisle of Pare Engineering, which is representing the dam's owners, Infinity Holdings, offered some words of optimism.

"As water level decreases, it will be taking a load off the structure, and that's what everyone is looking for," Bellisle said.

Nunes said his town remained in a state of emergency and urged residents near the river to heed evacuation orders.

He said that more than 2,000 residents in low-lying areas and downtown have been advised to evacuate and that most have complied.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who arrived Tuesday morning in Taunton, said he thought the mayor had acted wisely.

He said the dam's status was "high hazard," meaning "a significant failure could lead to loss of life or loss of a significant amount of property."

Federal Emergency Management Agency workers are inspecting other dams in the area and are available if needed, Romney said.

Romney said the Whittenton dam, built in 1832, has been repaired and rebuilt over the years, but said he did not know the status of recent repair requests.

"We have a process which is generally working" regarding the state's system for maintaining its 3,000 dams, "but we'll also be taking a close look at it following the stress ... over the last week," the governor said.

Most of those dams are privately owned, making it difficult for the state to force the owners to make the necessary repairs.

But Romney said the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation "plans to finalize this fall new regulations that give the state enforcement powers over private dam owners who are ordered to make repairs following an inspection.

"Previously these powers did not exist," he said.

'It would be wise to leave'

Police knocked on Paul Wapenski's door early Tuesday and urged him to leave, The Associated Press reported, but he decided to stay because he lives just upstream from the dam and didn't think his home was in danger.

"I was told it would be wise to leave, but it was not mandatory," the 55-year-old welder told the AP. "If [the dam] goes, I want to see it go."

Shops on lower Main Street were mostly deserted Tuesday as Scott Weyant made last-minute preparations at his karate studio before getting out, the AP reported. He said he didn't have flood insurance, according to the AP.

"I never figured I'd need it," he told the AP. "We're in the city. You don't get flooded in the city."

Flood warning issued

The National Weather Service issued a flash-flood warning for imminent dam failure until 10 p.m. ET Tuesday. An 8-foot flood wave was possible if the dam breaks, it said.

Most of the 63 evacuees at a Red Cross shelter in the local high school are from a riverside housing development for the elderly, and Nunes said he expects more evacuees to arrive at the shelter later Tuesday.

Water began seeping through the dam around 2 a.m. ET Tuesday, and the dam's owners alerted authorities of the partial breach, the mayor said.

Nunes declared a state of emergency Monday evening and closed all schools, government offices, courts and businesses in the city's downtown.

National Guard deployed

As a precaution, 21 National Guard soldiers, six trucks and three Humvees have been dispatched to the city to help with flooding rescue and recovery, Nunes said.

State and county emergency officials are also on the scene, including dive teams on standby, he said.

CNN's Dan Lothian and Chad Myers contributed to this report.

Copyright 2005 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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