|By Michelle Kealey|
WESTFIELD Fifty years ago, much of Westfield was under water when a flood took the community by surprise -- a disaster the Westfield River Watershed Association (WRWA) will remember by hosting an event this Thursday to help people recall the Flood of 1955.
During the free event, which will take place Aug. 18 at 7:30 p.m. in Westfield State College's Wilson Hall, the WRWA will show its documentary Five Feet and Rising: The Flood of '55 and Mike Boulanger, the city's Emergency Management director, will explain how the city would handle a similar disaster if it were to occur again.
According to Kathy Meyer, president of the WRWA Board of Directors, the WRWA was formed in the early 1950s because many citizens were concerned about flooding.
The group was formed three years before the Flood of 1955 took place.
Meyer explained that the flood occurred exactly 50 years ago to the day the event will take place. She said the flood took place on Thursday, Friday and Saturday Aug. 18-20.
"It is considered the largest flood in Westfield's recorded history," she said.
Meyer explained that the flood was caused by two hurricanes that occurred within a week of each other Connie and Diane.
She said that the rain from Connie saturated the ground to the point that it could not take anymore water.
"Then, Diane came and added more rain," she said. "Between the two [there was] 24 inches of rain in less than a week."
She said that the small runoff streams that run into the Westfield River practically became "gushing Niagara Falls."
Commuters who travel on Route 20, for example, would have been under many feet of water, she said.
She added that all of the cars on Meadow Street and other streets near there floated away.
The Westfield River, Little River and Powder Mill River were all over the tops of their banks, according to Meyer.
She said that the Knightville Dam in the Westfield River was supposed to protect against a 100 year flood. However, she said that the Flood of 1955 was bigger than a 100 year flood and the water overtook the structure
"Parts of Westfield were under 20 feet of water," she said. "Westfield is considered the town most hard hit."
She said that the flood caused two deaths in the city.
When members of the organization began talking about ways to remember the flood after 50 years, Meyer said that she came up with the idea to create a video.
She said that many of the people who experienced the flood are older and she thought it would make a "great video" to get their memories down.
"I was going to do a modest, less professional product," she said.
Jack Hayward of Hayward Communications volunteered to create the video, which was produced by Hayward Communications and the WRWA.
"He took over the project [so it is] not Kathy with her video camera. It became a professional piece," Meyer said.
She explained that Hayward teamed up with Mark St. Jean, who runs the Communications Department at Westfield State College, to create the video.
The WSC Communications Department did the editing of the video and Meyer said the students and Saint Jean "devoted many hundreds of hours" of their time.
The WRWA placed notices around the city soliciting photographs of the flood and asking members of the community to share their memories of the event.
"From that we got hundreds of photos and many hours of video," Meyer said. The film was created during the months of January, February and March.
From the responses, interviews, photographs and reels of film were selected for the 27 minute video, which debuted during the WRWA Symposium on April 2.
"It's been a complete runaway success," Meyer said.
The city provided funding so that the WRWA could distribute the documentary to local schools and the library.
People were also able to purchase the video.
Meyer explained that Connor's in Westfield offered to sell the video for the WRWA and they debated the number of copies that the store needed.
She said that she left 120 copies to be sold at the store, which sold in one day.
Meyer said over 800 copies have been sold at Connor's and an additional 100 have been donated to schools, historical groups and other similar organizations.
"It has been received very well," Meyer said.
She added that at one point, Connor's had a back order of about 300.
"They were literally flying off the shelves," she said, adding that she thought the organization would "maybe sell 50."
The documentary has been shown a few more times since the Symposium and each time, Meyer said, the organization was "swamped with people" who wanted to view it.
She added that she had to turn away some people during a showing at the Westfield Athenaeum because 170 people were in a room that should only house 120. It was also shown on Westfield's Cable Access Channel.
Meyer said that the auditorium at Westfield State College can hold about 300 people. She encourages people to attend the event to learn more about the flood and maybe share a few memories.
Meyer said the WRWA invited Boulanger to the event because one of the questions many people ask after viewing the film is "could this ever happen again?"
She added that he will talk about what is different today and how the city would respond compared to 50 years ago.
She said, for example, that not everyone had a television 50 years ago. She added that today, it would be easier to get the word out about a disaster. "Communication is structured better than it was back then," she said.
For those residents who cannot attend the Aug. 18 event, the film will be shown on WGBY on Sept. 8 at 9 p.m.
"We are very proud to go on prime time," she said, adding that WGBY has "pretty high standards" and the video is well made.
For more information about the WRWA, visit www.westfieldriver.org.