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Record floods impact thousands

As rivers recede, thousands seek flood aid and disaster response organizations assess needs.


"This is unprecedented in our state's history."

—Gov. Don Carcieri

More than 11,000 residents of Rhode Island and Massachusetts have already applied for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) following historic flooding that has hit the region.

While some survivors will spend the weekend digging through water-logged possessions, others are still unable to return home until nearby rivers crest early next week. Emergency officials in Rhode Island, hard-hit by flooding this week, were particularly concerned about the number of businesses impacted by the disaster. The state’s unemployment rate was already one of the highest in the nation.

According to the National Weather Service, Massachusetts, New Jersey and parts of New York City set March rainfall records. And by Tuesday afternoon, Rhode Island joined them, with more than 15 inches of rain recorded.

National Guard troops have been deployed in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Bridges and highways were washed out from Maine to Connecticut and sewage systems were overwhelmed to the point that families were asked to stop flushing toilets.

Rhode Island fared the worst in the northeast flooding, with nine inches of rain in East Providence, eight inches in downtown Providence and five inches in Cranston.

“None of us alive have seen the flooding that we are experiencing now or going to experience,” Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri said. “This is unprecedented in our state's history."

“The Rhode Island National Guard has just been unbelievable. They reacted the minute the rains started, because we all knew what was coming. They have been working around the clock. They’re helping towns with sandbags, they are people available for rescue missions, and they’ve provided equipment to everybody,” said Steve Kass, Communications Manager for the Emergency Management Agency of Rhode Island

Although many parts of the state appeared unaffected, roads in other areas were washed out, ball fields were underwater, and homes and businesses were flooded. “People all over the state have got flooding issues in the basements and in their homes because the ground continues to be so saturated,” Carcieri said. “Unfortunately, that is going to continue for a little longer.”

“There is hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. All the rivers, streams, highways, have been blocked off pretty much everywhere. The damage was extensive right across the board. We don’t even have a real handle of it yet. I mean, you take a flight over the state there’s so much water, its mind-boggling. Remarkably, there have been no fatalities or serious injuries reported,” said Kass.

The Department of Public Works in Rhode Island asked every resident, (about 1 million people) to conserve water and electricity because of flooded sewage systems and electrical substations. Health officials urged people exposed to floodwater to wear long sleeves and wash their hands regularly to avoid bacteria and viruses.

Carcieri, said it is too soon to know the economic impact of the latest round of flooding to the state, which has a $220 million budget deficit.

The heavy rain is just another setback to Rhode Island, which has struggled for months with an unemployment rate nearing 13 percent. This is 3 percent 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. “The Warwick Mall is still underwater- that’s 1,000 jobs… we have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country as it is. We don’t need this at all,” Kass said.

The National Weather service said that the Pawtuxet River, which runs through Cranston, Rhode Island, crested at 20.79 feet Wednesday. This is nearly 12 feet above flood stage. Although it is now falling, it is not expected to be below flood stage until Sunday.

As floodwaters in various areas begin to recede, residents may have to spend their holiday weekend cleaning up damage and shoveling mud from their homes. Disaster response organizations said they expected to begin damage assessments next week that will help them consider appropriate response to the most recent flooding.

Allan Fung, Mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, said 140 homes were evacuated in his town. “We’re at a stage now where we move from public safety aspect to the assessment of infrrastructure and helping people pump out their basement and get back in their homes. We’re getting two major sewer pump stations back up and running right now. There’s a lot going on.”

Kass said that at this point, there is only so much residents can do. “So many homes still have water in their basement (from the storm two weeks ago), now the water is several feet higher, and the water table is so high, that there’s nowhere for it to go, it can’t be absorbed. I was getting water in my basement yesterday. It’s unreal,” said Kass.

The Northeast has barely had time to recover from their last major storm. The most recent storm follows nearly 10 inches of rain residents received just a few weeks ago.

“The FEMA people are still here from the last storm. Now they’ve sent additional people for this storm. Two weeks ago, the Pawtuxet River went six feet over flood level, and that was crazy. This time it went 12 feet over flood level causing much more widespread damage. The whole state is buried,” said Kass.

President Obama issued an emergency declaration Tuesday for Rhode Island, ordering federal aid and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited Rhode Island on Friday to assess the damage.

The National Weather Service says that sunny weather over the next few days should speed up the drying process as Easter weekend approaches.

Kass has tried to find positive in a bleak situation: “Once we get all the water down to normal, we can see what’s underneath it all, then it’s a massive clean up. People have started what they can, but it’s still a waiting game until it goes away.”

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