Last remaining county of flooded RI declared disaster area after DHS boss tours state by air

By Russell Contreras, AP
Friday, April 2, 2010

Last remaining RI county declared disaster area

WARWICK, R.I. — Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri (kuh-CHEHR’-ee) and the flooded state’s Emergency Management Agency say the president has approved their request to amend a federal major disaster declaration, meaning the entire state now is considered a disaster area.

President Barack Obama had already declared a disaster in much of Rhode Island, triggering federal aid. The declaration was extended Friday to the last remaining area, Bristol County.

Federal Emergency Management Agency teams worked for two days to assess the damage there.

Carcieri says he’d like to express his appreciation to Obama and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for their support and swift action.

Napolitano took a helicopter tour over Rhode Island on Friday, witnessing waterlogged shopping malls and homes with people’s possessions laid out to dry in their yards.

Associated Press writer John Curran in West Warwick contributed to this report.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

WARWICK, R.I. (AP) — U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano took a helicopter tour over still-flooded Rhode Island on Friday, witnessing waterlogged shopping malls and homes with people’s possessions laid out to dry in their yards, as residents and officials in the already economically troubled state pleaded for her to secure more federal aid.

Napolitano called the flooding “significant” and pledged the federal government’s help in the months to come. State officials, including U.S. Reps. Jim Langevin and Patrick Kennedy, pressed for more than what’s already been promised.

“We were already reeling from a bad economy. This is the last thing that Rhode Island could deal with, and yet, here we are,” Langevin, whose district was hardest hit, said to Napolitano during a news conference. “Families, individuals, businesses need the help, as soon as possible.”

The National Weather Service said it did not expect the Pawtuxet River, source of much of the flooding, to go below flood stage until at least Sunday. Many neighborhoods and businesses have been underwater since Monday due to three days of record-setting rain that caused the worst flooding in the state in at least 200 years. It was the second round of major flooding this month.

Gov. Don Carcieri has said the floods likely caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, and state labor officials said as many as 4,000 people are temporarily out of work.

President Barack Obama had already declared a disaster in much of Rhode Island, which triggers some federal money, although the state is required to match 25 percent of the disaster funds.

Carcieri and members of the congressional delegation have asked the federal government to waive that requirement given the state’s dire financial situation. The state has had years of budget problems, with a current deficit of $220 million, and the unemployment rate is at 12.7 percent, third worst in the country.

Napolitano told The Associated Press she was considering the request, but she said the priority was to “get the aid out that we know we can get out.” She said Congress has strict laws about whether states qualify for the waiver but she would work with state officials on their application.

Even residents wanted Washington to know they needed the help.

Johnny Verdadeiro, a landlord in West Warwick who owns eight buildings, said he already knew he had to repair and replace boilers and hot water heaters — and he fretted there was more damage to come.

His message to Napolitano: “Please send money.”

Kennedy and Langevin, both Democrats, also pressed for the government to give help in the form of grants, rather than loans.

The storms hit during the holiest week of the Christian calendar. The Rev. Eliseo Nogueras, pastor of Gethsemane Church in Pawtucket, said the build-up to Easter Sunday has special meaning this year because of what the state’s been through this week.

“It’s typically a day when we remember Christ’s sacrifice,” he said of Good Friday. “This week is tough. We’ve all been touched by what’s happened, and it reminds us of what he did for us and how we should work together.”

As the waters receded, residents ramped up cleanup efforts and began to fully assess the effects of the water. In some places badly disrupted from the flooding, life was getting back to normal.

The road connecting T.F. Green Airport in Warwick to Interstate 95 reopened at midday. The state’s main airport stayed open through the flood, but the closure of I-95 and the connector road had caused headaches for air travelers for days.

Cranston residents were told Friday they could flush their toilets again after a sewage pump station that had been underwater for days resumed operations. In neighboring Warwick, crews restored sewer services but asked some residents to limit usage to avoid a backup.

But Amtrak trains still were not operating Friday through Rhode Island because of water on the tracks. Service between Boston and New York was being rerouted through Springfield, Mass., and high-speed Acela Express service was not available between New Haven, Conn. and Boston.

Many of the shellfishing grounds that were closed in the southern part of the state were scheduled to reopen Saturday, although others further north remained closed because of sewage and other contaminants in the water.

In West Warwick, the epicenter for some of the worst flooding, the sights and sounds of cleanup were everywhere. On one street, floodwater had receded but police cruisers still blocked off side streets thick with mud. Fire trucks idled noisily in the street, and portable generators hummed, powering hoses that snaked out of basement windows, the water gushing out and sloshing into puddles in the street.

David and Barbara Chappelle, whose basement flooded to the ceiling beginning Tuesday, were waiting for a building inspector to arrive and tell them whether they could go back in. Their house had no electricity or running water, and the floodwater was still 2 feet deep in the basement.

“My house is totaled — the heating system, the electrical, all my tools,” David Chappelle said. “Everything’s going to be contaminated.”

Associated Press writer John Curran in West Warwick contributed to this report.

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