Water threatens homes, businesses across New England; RI sees ‘unprecedented’ flooding

By Pat Eaton-robb, AP
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

New England flooding drowns homes and dreams

WEST WARWICK, R.I. — Flooding on a scale rarely seen in New England forced hundreds of people from their homes Wednesday, overwhelmed sewage systems to the point that families were asked to stop flushing toilets, and washed out bridges and highways from Maine to Connecticut.

Hardest hit by three days of record-breaking rain was Rhode Island, where the worst flooding in 200 years could persist for several more days and permanently close businesses already struggling in the weak economy.

“I think we’re all done,” said Angelo Padula Jr., a West Warwick town councilman whose family owns a 100-year-old auto-restoration shop. The shop and 260 cars stood in 10 feet of water from the Pawtuxet River.

Padula said officials told him they believe his shop and about 40 surrounding businesses would have to be condemned, as will several blocks of nearby homes.

“We were wiped right out,” said Padula, whose 86-year-old father was hospitalized after having a heart attack during Tuesday night’s flooding. “You’re talking millions and millions of dollars in these businesses. Now I know how the people in New Orleans felt” after Hurricane Katrina.

The rain subsided to a drizzle Wednesday, then finally stopped, and the floodwaters began to recede. But authorities across New England warned that much of the water could linger for days. The latest flooding was far worse than an inundation earlier this month in the same areas.

Stonington, Conn., a coastal town on the Rhode Island border, was largely cut off as two of its three bridges went out. A bridge also gave out in Freetown, Mass., isolating about 1,000 residents. In Coventry, R.I., a two-lane bridge threatened to collapse after its abutments washed out.

A stretch of Interstate 95, the main route linking Boston to New York, was closed in Rhode Island and could remain so at least through Thursday.

Amtrak suspended some trains in the area because of water over the tracks. It said its Acela Express service between New Haven, Conn., and Boston and its Northeast regional service between New York and Boston would be suspended into Thursday morning.

In Rhode Island, rescues continued for a third day along the Pawtuxet River, which flooded several blocks past its banks in many spots. The river crested Wednesday morning at 20.79 feet, nearly 6 feet over the previous record — set only two weeks ago — and almost 12 feet above its ordinary level of 9 feet.

The river is expected to return to its banks by Saturday, officials said.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano planned to travel to Rhode Island on Friday to assess damage caused by flooding, a DHS official said Wednesday evening on condition of anonymity because her trip hadn’t been formally announced.

An aerial tour of the state taken by The Associated Press revealed the sweep of the damage.

Water flowed like a torrent around the Warwick Mall, with rapids approaching the front doors of a Macy’s and an Old Navy store and putting a movie theater under water. Cars were submerged up to their roofs. Oil slicks floated on top of muddy water through neighborhoods.

Although many parts of the state appeared unaffected, roads in other areas were broken up, ball fields were underwater, and homes and businesses were flooded.

The heavy rain is the latest setback to Rhode Island, which has struggled for months with an unemployment rate nearing 13 percent — about 3 percentage points higher than the national average. Some of the areas worst hit were business districts, including the area around the Warwick Mall, one of the state’s major shopping areas.

Amy Kempe, a spokeswoman for Gov. Don Carcieri, said it was too soon to know the economic impact of the latest round of flooding to the state, which has a $220 million budget deficit.

Also threatened was West Warwick, a town designated a “distressed community” by the state because of its many low-income residents and heavy tax burden. The town was the site in 2003 of one of the nation’s deadliest nightclub fires.

During the last round of flooding, businesses in that town alone were estimated to have missed out on $730,000 in revenue, and the most recent storms have been worse.

Every resident of Rhode Island, a state of about 1 million, was asked to conserve water and electricity because of flooded sewage systems and electrical substations. In Warwick, a water- and sewage-treatment plant failed, and officials urged people not to wash clothes or flush toilets.

The waters either stranded hundreds of people or sent them to shelters. Many of those who stayed behind appeared shell-shocked.

Monica Bourgeois, 45, cried Wednesday as she stood outside her home in Cranston, where a sewer pump station gave out and hundreds of people had evacuated. The Pawtuxet had turned her lawn into a lake and flooded her basement with 6 feet of still-rising water.

“I have absolutely no idea how we’re going to pay for this,” she said. “I’m extremely, extremely worried. Do you know how much a new furnace costs? We’re just praying to God for some help.”

The flooding caps a month that set rainfall records across the region. Boston measured nearly 15 inches for March, breaking the previous record for the month, set in 1953. New Jersey, New York City and Portland, Maine, surpassed similar records. Providence registered its rainiest month on record, period, with a total of more than 15 inches of rain in March.

President Barack Obama has issued an emergency declaration for Rhode Island, ordering federal aid for relief and authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate efforts. National Guard troops were deployed there and in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Life came nearly to a standstill in many parts of Rhode Island. Nonessential state workers were given the day off, and state officials asked schools and businesses to consider closing as well. The University of Rhode Island also closed.

In Connecticut, the muddy earth beneath a Middletown apartment complex parking lot gave way, leaving two buildings teetering over the ravine of a river. Authorities also evacuated 50 units at a condominium complex in Jewett City in eastern Connecticut because a sewage treatment plant next door was under at least 4 feet of water.

The biggest concerns in Massachusetts were in the southeastern corner of the state, where a highway was closed. Heavy rains buckled a road in Fall River, near the Rhode Island border.

In Peabody, north of Boston, some residents were evacuated, and downtown businesses piled sandbags at their front doors and nearby streets were closed.

Demetri Skalkos, co-owner of McNamara’s liquor store, said about 3 feet of water stood in the basement. He said he was worried about losing business over the traditionally busy Easter period.

“This is the Holy Week,” he said. “If we don’t do business now, when are we going to do business?”

Associated Press writers Bob Salsberg in Boston, Jay Lindsay in Peabody, Mass., Michelle R. Smith in Providence and Clarke Canfield in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.

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