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Bailing out of historic floods

March 27, 2011

Flood waters reached the "Warwick" on the front of the animal shelter near the sewage treatment plant

The clear skies and sunshine that have graced the last weekend in March this year couldn’t be a greater contrast to the conditions Rhode Islanders were suffering through a year ago. Days and days of rain sent residents fleeing their homes by boat, left cars abandoned in place nearly submerged, and stuck the Warwick Mall in a sea of water. It’s amazing nobody died.

A new report out of Brown University Center for Environmental Studies looks back at how growth and development facilitated the historic flood, the response, the financial impact, and what we can learn with a year of distance.

The report starts with the Pawtuxet River watershed, which is the state’s largest covering about 15 percent of Rhode Island. The parking lots and roof tops replacing vegetation here, along with its circular shape, amplified the flood. The report also notes that the I-95 airport extension was built in a floodplain, which helps explain why it got flooded out a year ago.

Also along the Pawtuxet’s banks is the Warwick Wastewater Treatment Facility. I visited the treatment plant on a rainy March day with Mayor Scott Avedisian and plant superintendent Janine Burke, and there were some jokes about how March rain makes them a little jumpy. They can chuckle now, but a year ago Avedisian was grappling with flooded roads caving in, police sending traffic away from I-95 and through his city, homes catching fire, and a sewage treatment plant nearly underwater. He says his strategy was, “focus for two minutes, make a decision, and move on to the next decision.”

One call Avedisian had to make was whether residents could use their bathrooms.

 “You can do as much planning and as much training as you think you need to do,” he says, “but nothing prepares you to stand at a podium and have a press conference and tell people they can’t flush their toilets.”

Avedisian says people understood the magnitude of the crises and listened. It’s that pulling together that has stuck with him a year later. He credits the focus of sewage plant employees for bailing out the plant in less than a week. He says city employees with their own flooding problems put in extra hours to help departments they didn’t work in. And he’s still amazed that Rhode Islanders stepped in and took care of every animal in the flooded shelter.  

As the saying goes: character isn’t developed in times of crises it’s exhibited. And it’s remembered. Avedisian and Burke say they will never forget the spirit of cooperation they saw a year ago.

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