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Homeland Security Chief Tours Flooded Rhode Island

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WARWICK, R.I. - U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano got a firsthand look at disastrous flooding in Rhode Island, and state officials asked the federal government to help the economically devastated state pay for its response costs and to fix ruined bridges, roads and sewer systems.

Some areas of the state were still under water Friday, days after runoff first seeped into low-lying neighborhoods because of record-setting rains that blew through the Northeast. 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.

Napolitano and Federal Emergency Management Agency Deputy Administrator Richard Serino were touring flood-damaged areas before meeting with Gov. Don Carcieri and members of the state's congressional delegation.

On Thursday, the delegation sent her a letter asking for a major disaster declaration to be extended to the entire state. They also want the federal government to waive a requirement for the state to pick up 25 percent of the costs of the disaster response and to speed federal help to pay for ruined infrastructure.

Carcieri has said the worst flooding to hit the state in at least 200 years might have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I, said the state was in crisis and needed help.

"If there is a part of the country that needed federal support, it's Rhode Island. We were in the economic storm before anybody else. We've been in it longer, and now we've been hit with another storm," he said Thursday.

Shopping malls, small businesses and mills are still under water in the state, which has nearly 13 percent of its residents unemployed. Kennedy said Rhode Islanders were wondering about when the devastation would end, and when they would get help.

One of those was Kenneth Guilmette, 60, who for 20 years worked at Bradford Printing and Finishing in Westerly. On Thursday, he watched as gray water from the Pawcatuck River swirled around engulfed the 103-year-old textile mill, surrounding its brown brick buildings and smokestack. In the distance, the roof of a submerged red Ford Mustang - left behind by someone in the rush to get out before floodwaters invaded - was barely visible.

Guilmette thought about the future of the mill, and his job as third shift fireman in the boiler room.

"I worked here a long time, put a lot of sweat into the place myself," he said Thursday morning. "To see it swamped like this is a terrible thing. A terrible thing. Especially just before retirement."

"I can tell you I'm sick to my stomach about it. I'm afraid. I'm afraid of losing my livelihood here," he said.

State officials said they could give no estimate of the number of workers idled by closings, but many small businesses were affected.

In downtown Westerly, the raging Pawcatuck River ran under a Route 1 bridge that links Westerly and Pawcatuck, Conn., prompting authorities to close it as a safety measure.

That cut off a building housing the In Store Avon Center, run by Julie Cofone, 52. She arrived Thursday morning to find yellow police tape blocking her from getting to the store, and a police officer telling her she couldn't cross.

"We've only been open four months," she said. "For us starting up, we were doing well our first few months. Then to have this all of a sudden. ... Hopefully, it's not going to be a major setback."

On the Westerly side, Sheila Fravesi, 53, owner of The Bean Counter coffee shop, was surveying the damage to inventory in her basement from river water that backed up into hers and other basements. Her shop lost electricity Tuesday, and the surging water lifted up refrigerators in her basement, spilling their contents.

"I'm going to be closed for a few days. That's my take for a few days. I've only got a couple of girls working for me, so it impacts their salary. They won't be able to work," she said.

At Bradford Printing, where they have been printing camouflage uniforms for the U.S. military for decades, the fear among the approximately 50 workers was that it might never reopen because of the flood damage.

"I don't want to say it's going to put us out of business, because it might not," said Dan Kenyon, 49, the boiler room manager. "We're certainly going to have a lot to look at when the water goes down. I don't want to make assumptions about what we'll see when that happens.

"I like to be optimistic, but it's quite a disaster," he said.

___

Associated Press writers John Curran in Westerly, and Eric Tucker and Michelle R. Smith in Providence contributed to this report.
 



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