TAUNTON, Mass. (AP) – The water pressing against a battered wooden dam continued to recede Wednesday, but officials planned to pump more out to try to allow repairs ahead of a weekend forecast calling for heavy rain and flooding.

Mayor Robert Nunes said Wednesday the dam was stable, but a team of state experts has determined that its status “remains critical,” and the city will continue its state of emergency. Officials were hopeful the pumping that was to begin overnight would take more pressure off the 173-year-old Whittenton Pond Dam.

“I feel a lot better tonight than I did last night,” Nunes said.

Officials feared a dam break would send a 6-foot wall of water surging through downtown Taunton, about a half-mile downstream.

Nunes said Wednesday night evacuations remain in effect for thousands of people living below the dam, and the downtown business area would remain closed. But he said it was possible the order could be lifted on Thursday if the dam is found to be safe enough. School was cancelled for Thursday, he said.

He also warned that a “very troublesome” weekend forcast for more heavy rain could mean that evacuations would have to be reinstated even if they were lifted this week.

Nunes said he took a walk Wednesday afternoon through the empty downtown area where he met with some local business owners who expressed their frustration.

“I reiterated to them that we must err on the side of caution,” he said.

He told residents watching his news briefing on the local cable channel: “We’re all in this together.”

The mayor said six pumps would begin later Wednesday night removing more than 32,000 gallons of water a minute from an area upstream of the dam, piping it around the dam to the river below. Civil engineers will carefully monitor the process, and do not believe that extra water will cause any flooding on the river.

“This discharge will help relieve pressure and headwater on the Whittenton dam, and will allow the necessary evaluations and repairs,” Nunes said.

He said officials expect the pumping operation to remove about 10 percent of the water behind the dam, creating additional capacity in anticipation of the weekend rains.

Matthew Bellisle, an engineer hired by the dam’s owners, said the water needs to recede by several more inches to expose enough of the dam to allow engineers to get a full handle on the type of repairs that can be made.

Crews have been working to ease pressure on the dam by allowing water through it and another dam farther upstream. The water in Lake Sabbatia, above the dam, dropped by more than six inches since Tuesday but remained several feet above normal.

Forecasters said Hurricane Wilma could cross Florida before heading north through the Atlantic toward New England. And a separate weather system now in the midwest could also bring rain by the weekend, National Weather Service meteorologist Matthew Belk said.

“The flooding danger this weekend is starting to shape up to be fairly significant,” he said. “Our ground is pretty saturated now.”

National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said it’s too early to know if Wilma is headed toward New England.

“It’s going to move very very rapidly once it gets over the Atlantic Ocean,” he said, “and if it does start heading closer to New England, that’s how they get clobbered up there.”

Taunton saw more than 7 inches of rain last weekend, bringing the monthly total to more than 11 inches and pushing the Mill River to near-flood levels. The Whittenton Pond Dam buckled and Nunes ordered the evacuation of neighborhoods downstream. The situation worsened Tuesday after some of the dam’s timbers washed away and residents and business owners were told to stay away.

Anthony and Dianne Lentine’s downtown deli and convenience store remained closed, but they were there Tuesday to do some cleaning. “We can’t just sit at home and do nothing,” Dianne said.

Anthony Lentine said the couple was losing $1,000 a day in lost business and spoiled food because of the evacuation.

“We can’t go on like this,” he said. “What is the breaking point? I don’t know. At some point I’m not going to be able to keep the doors open. I have rent coming up soon.”

President Bush issued an emergency declaration Wednesday for Bristol County, triggering the release of federal funds for local officials battling to save the dam.

Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, who visited the area Wednesday, praised the move, but said they’ll also push for a quick federal assistance for residents and business owners displaced by the crisis. But Anthony Lentine was skeptical.

“How long is that going to take?” he said. “We’re not the only ones. Everyone around us is losing money every day.”

Clara Brosnan, 54, has been living at a Red Cross shelter at the high school with her daughter and granddaughter since evacuating their riverside home on Monday.

“I’m tired of it,” she said. “But you have to go with the flow. I’m hoping we don’t have to stay much longer, but if we have to we have to.”

Taunton, a working-class city of 50,000 about 40 miles south of Boston, last flooded in 1968, when the same dam was breached. It was once a hub for the textile and silversmithing industries, and the 12-foot Whittenton Pond Dam was built in 1832 to power nearby mills. It no longer serves any industrial use and was bought two years ago by Jefferson Development of Leominster.

It is one of about 3,000 privately owned dams in the state and was inspected two years ago and found to be in fair condition. One of the owners, Steve Poelaert, said work to restore the dam was to have begun last Friday, but was delayed because of the heavy rain.

Gov. Mitt Romney has ordered the emergency inspection of all dams in the state that pose a risk deaths or destroyed property if they were to breach.

State teams were working to complete inspections of 186 such dams whose conditions have been rated unsafe, poor or fair and expected to finish on Saturday, said Stephen Burrington, commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

AP reporter Matt Pitta contributed to this report.

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