Plans underway to resolve severe flooding issues on Belfield Drive

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It’s been a hectic week for the Belfield Drive neighborhood.

Following a meeting in Mayor Joseph Polisena’s office on Thursday morning with federal, state and local officials, a plan was put into place to address the flooding issues on the street, which has now been designated a local disaster area by federal officials.

At Thursday’s meeting were members of the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the Northern Rhode Island Conservation, Department of Public Works (DPW), along with representatives from Senator Jack Reed, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Congressman Jim Langevin’s offices. 

“There’s no instant gratification in life. It’s not going to happen right away, but we’re going to get to work on something that will be beneficial to that area of Johnston that seems to flood,” said Polisena. “We know that it’s important that we have to straighten out the problem, but we’ve come up with a solution and I think it’s great.”

Authorities believe that the flooding is being exacerbated by the property consisting of the former Golden Triangle golf center. A decades-old culvert through the property appears to have been compromised, and water is not flowing the way it did in the past, which has flooded the lower portion of Belfield.

Pooh Vongkhamdy, a State Conservationist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Resource Conservation Service (USDANRCS), said that his department has an emergency watershed program containing easement money to buy two homes that are flooded.

“Then we’re going to rebuild the culvert on Belfield Drive. When we move the people out, we’re going to have more storage for the water and we’re going to raise up the road so that we can take care of emergencies, that people can go to work and be able to use the road,” said Vongkhamdy.

Vongkhamdy said that long-term solutions include repairing the culvert that’s blocked with the debris. That culvert pipe is part of the Pocasset River.

“Someone has manipulated the river by using the pipe to replace that section of river. Now that pipe is clogged up and it’s backed up the water,” said Vongkhamdy.

It’s believed that the culvert is well over 50 years old, and with heavy dumping on the culvert the structure has been compromised.

“We feel that what they’re doing [with the culvert] is a pretty good reason because that property was really polluted. So to have an open, running river through there can carry a lot of contamination. So the solution is a good idea to have it go underground and not have water run through that property,” said Vongkhamdy. “It’s a practical idea, but the thing is there was no maintenance and no one taking care of it and we don’t know what type of pipe was built in there.”

Ownership of the defective culvert had not been determined at the time of the meeting. It remains unclear, should ownership be found, if that party would be financially responsible for any of the cleanup or the proposed project at this time. The property containing the culvert is located at 2113 Hartford Avenue, and town documents show it is owned by a company called Sitwell Park LLC, with addresses listed in East Greenwich and Providence. Phone calls to telephone numbers associated with those addresses were not answered.

On Thursday, the area was declared a local disaster by the USDANRCS, entitled the November Flooding Event. Vongkhamdy said a letter would be sent to his headquarters in Washington, D.C. requesting funding to take care of the problem. When the money is received, the work will start, but Vongkhamdy was unsure when those federal funds would be available.

“This plan is a comprehensive plan that will be implemented in partnership with our local, state and federal partners. Speaking specifically to the road, the goal here is to provide access, emergency access, as well as provide additional flood storage,” said Alan Gillespie, State Conservation Engineer for the USDANRCS. “So the plan would be to actually acquire the immediate lot to the flooding, restore it to a flood plain, and raise the road to allow traffic in and out of Belfield Drive.”

The homes will be assessed and then voluntarily acquired through a federal government easement program and removed. Those homes are 51 and 68 Belfield Drive.

“This is a voluntary program, so should the participants want to apply they will be considered. There is no imminent domain; this would solely be at their request,” said Gillespie.

Should those residents decline, it is unclear if the cleanup project may move forward.

“We cannot build the culvert or all of that then because if we do the water will flood to them,” said Vongkhamdy during the meeting.

He added that these affected residents had been contacted by the federal government in the past. However, those homes didn’t qualify for the program after the flooding in 2010 as there needed to be two flooding events within a 10-year timeframe to be considered.

Residents respond

Robert Barcellos, who lives at 68 Belfield Drive, has dealt with flooding issues in the past when his home was inundated with water during the historic floods. He and his mother, Karen, who has lived in the house since the 1960s, have been put to the test with the floodwaters.

Karen, who suffers from several medical conditions, has since moved from the property with the assistance of the Johnston Fire Department and is now staying with her daughter. Nearly two feet of water covered their front yard and entered their basement.

“Yes, we’re going to take the buyout, but the issue is how do we move stuff out, do we just take stuff that we can carry, because I don’t see a moving truck getting in here right now,” said Barcellos.

Karen Casey bought her home at 51 Belfield Drive about eight years ago and considers it her dream home. She said she felt let down by the buyout offer.

“Even if they were to buy me out, and that’s not happening by the way, I’d have to pay the bank. I’m not going anywhere. I lived in Providence all my life and was a single mom of three. When the kids moved out I moved here and chose this house,” said Casey. “I love this area, it’s nice and secluded and wooded but civilization is five minutes away from me. I am not giving up my house because of eight inches of water in my basement, which I think is a fixable issue.”

Casey understands why the Barcelloses would want to move because their property was flooded far worse than hers. She said that her property wasn’t particularly flooded, just her basement. She’s had to turn off her furnace and water heater and believes them to be ruined, but other appliances could be moved to higher ground. She’s running space heaters to keep warm and said that the situation is tolerable, but it’s apparent that she is frustrated.

The Red Cross visited Casey and discussed disaster relief options with her. She said she felt okay to stay at the home as she’s not trapped by the floodwaters.

“I am not going to let anyone guilt me into taking this home and I don’t believe that’s the only solution,” said Casey. “I don’t understand why two houses have to be torn down to fix the problem.”

During the course of the week following the meeting, officials have speculated that Casey’s home may not need to be reclaimed in order for the proposed project to move forward.

Brownfield issues

Also located in the area is the Hi-Lo/Cipriano’s dump, a 10-acre dump without an engineered liner or cap. The dump operated from 1967 to 1972 and suffered several large fires. Tests done in the area in the past by DEM found PCBs, contaminated soil and auto fluff. Construction debris was also apparently dumped on the site as well. Polisena said phase two of the cleanup plan would be to apply for a federal grant to remediate the brownfield.

Eric Beck, Chief of Groundwater and Freshwater Wetlands Protection at DEM, said that concerns about water pollution from the dump during the event were minimal but recommended limiting contact with the floodwater.

“I do believe that there’s very little to no chance of contaminants from the dump area, if there are any, being expressed in this area mostly because it’s upstream by quite a bit,” said Beck, who added that the homes affected are quite some distance away and aren’t a concern. “The bottom line is that, as far as contaminants, they’re so far upstream it’s not like the water would be in contact with anything downgradient.”

He added that measures will be taken if contact is made with the floodwaters, as surface contaminants and bacteria may be present.

“Our message is to take precautions, wash your boots and hands,” he said.

Pumping of floodwater

As of Thursday’s meeting, there were no public plans to bring in a pump to remove the floodwaters. According to Polisena, a 2,000-gallon-a-minute pump was brought to the area last week with more than 2,500 feet of hose, but that effort was unsuccessful. In four days of pump usage, the water only receded a half an inch.

“It’s definitely an inconvenience, but there’s nothing the town can do to immediately get rid of the water,” said Polisena at the meeting. “[The residents] have to be patient, and I know it’s easy for me to say because I don’t live there, but we have other areas of the town, too, that have flooding issues, but eventually it will subside.”

However, according to Polisena, unannounced plans were in the works to obtain a pump capable of draining the affected area. On Friday afternoon, the mayor met with the Police Department and DPW and had followed up on conversations with Governor Gina Raimondo about a “Plan B.”

“Obviously, the governor will do whatever she can to help us. She was very influential in getting us that super pumper. That was my Plan B and I had been in contact with her even before we had our meeting last Thursday,” said Polisena. “I was concerned about the rain that was coming and called her back and said we need to get a pump.”

Adding that he was concerned about more rain in the forecast, Polisena said that the town searched for a more powerful pump than what they had available to handle the millions of gallons of water. A pump was eventually found in Oxford, Massachusetts through United Rentals. That pump was capable of removing five million gallons of water a day and was brought in on Saturday. Crews were observed that morning at the scene just after 4 a.m.

Since the pump started operations, about a foot of water has been drained away. Debris in the form of leaves and trash in the water, along with additional rains, have hampered operations slightly. The pump was brought in at a rental cost to the town of $55,000 for seven days usage.

Cleanup response and governor’s visit

Deputy Police Chief Joseph Razza is Johnston’s Emergency Management Director. He continues to monitor and coordinate the town's efforts with the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency and utilizes the town's resources (police, fire and DPW), including neighboring community resources, when necessary. He has monitored the situation daily, visiting at least three times a day, including on Thanksgiving.

Police have stationed a Humvee near the scene of the flooding for transportation, and residents can call police headquarters to schedule a ride. On the fire department side, a Humvee has been turned into a rescue vehicle that can accommodate a stretcher that’s ready to be used if needed. In addition to the Humvee, fire trucks can readily access the blocked off area.

“We would offer to [the residents trapped by the floodwaters] to move their cars to the other side of the road where it’s dry, and then what we would do is we would pick them up at their homes with the Humvees that we have and take them to their car so that they could go to work and so they could come home or do their shopping,” said the mayor. “I don’t think there’s any other police department in the state of Rhode Island that would do that.”

“It’s not a public safety issue,” said Polisena. “I can put my head down on the pillow at night knowing that the people are safe, especially as a former firefighter.”

Under the current plan, Polisena said Route 295, located at the dead end of Belfield, will not be opened as permission will not be granted by the Federal Highway Administration.

Marc Pappas, acting director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, said he was pleased with the town’s response to the natural disaster.

“I think the town has done a great job. The area is inundated with water. We’ve had a really wet fall, one of the wettest on record. They seem to be very receptive to the local residents that live here from what I’ve seen,” said Pappas. “We’ve worked with the mayor and the deputy chief to try to get this resolved and pumped out so people can use the road.”

Pappas said the state does not have any plans to purchase a pump similar to the one being used as they have a master price agreement with United Rentals for use of their pumps.

“I think the town is on the right track with their solution,” he said.

On Tuesday, Governor Raimondo took a tour of the site, riding in a fire department Humvee driven by the mayor. She, too, seemed pleased with the progress that was being made.

“We got right on it. The mayor called us right away and he’s on it primarily and they’re providing backup support with the DOT and the EMA and we’re doing the best we can. It’s a big problem, but I think considering what we’ve had to deal with, they’re doing a great job,” said Raimondo. “And in a couple of days from now, if we keep pumping the water at the pace we’re pumping it, we ought to be in good shape.”

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