Mayor Joseph Polisena said there is a potential end in sight to the flooding issues on Belfield Drive, but residents are asking when changes will come.
Polisena told the Sun Rise during an interview on Tuesday morning that the matter is “in the feds’ hands” now after receiving an email from Northern Rhode Island Conservation District Manager Gina DeMarco in February.
He read from the message, which indicates funds had been approved to purchase the easements on two homes on Belfield Drive – 68 and 51 – but Polisena acknowledged one of the homeowners would not sell.
The approach to alleviate flooding would include raising the road and adding a culvert, which federal funds would cover. Polisena said the town agreed to take care of the top layer of asphalt on the road and fixtures such as guardrails.
“What’ll happen is they’ll put a culvert under the road,” he said. “[The federal government will] buy the two houses out, if one doesn’t want to sell, that’s fine, but they’ll buy one of the houses out. That’ll become the flood area, so when the water backs up it’ll go under the street, under the culvert and fill in that area like a pond. That’ll reduce the flooding to the street.”
DeMarco told Polisena that she would develop a memorandum of understanding between the town, NRICD and the National Resources Conservation Service. The mayor said he was told there would be a time to meet for signatures on a memorandum of agreement, but has still not heard back. He speculated that it could cost the federal government anywhere between $4 million and $5 million.
“So it’s not in my hands,” Polisena said. “It’s in the federal government’s hands. We’ve already spent numerous resources in that area, and we rented the pump for five days. It was $101,965 and some-odd cents. We’re not going to do that again. This was a few months back. We’re not going to do that again.”
A recent bout of rain brought more flooding to the Belfield Drive area, although the water is only about half as high as the flooding that occurred in November 2018. The roughly foot-high flooding may not be as perilous as it was in November, but residents Tania and Cynthia Nova are among those still greatly inconvenienced.
They live at the other end of the road, beyond the inundated area in front of 68 Belfield Drive, and have had to put their waders on every day in the recent weeks to trudge through the floodwaters. When the Sun Rise told the Novas of the plan to solve flooding in the area, their first response was: “When?”
“How long are we going to live like this?” Tania said, standing just a few feet from the floodwaters. “The solution is when? In the year 3000? Look at the roots of that [fallen] tree. All of them. What if a tree collapses when we’re going by? I put the waders on every day to go through. I’m not going to drive my car through this. In 2010, we lost a car.”
Tania and Cynthia were trapped in their car during the floods in spring of 2010, when the waters almost consumed the entire vehicle. They recounted their terrifying experience, saying they were able to escape when Tania got the vehicle’s door open.
“Honestly, I prayed,” Tania, an 11-year resident of the road, said. “I thought I was going to die.”
As for the current flooding, Polisena said there is no safety issue, but acknowledged that the flooding is “absolutely” an inconvenience for Belfield residents.
“People need to make the necessary plans, obviously, to travel that area,” he said. “Some of them keep their cars on the other side. I know it’s a pain in the neck, but there’s nothing I can do physically. If I could end the water tomorrow, it’d be gone, but obviously I can’t do that.”
Nova said the disruption extends well beyond her family, affecting the six others who live past the flooded area. She said the continued flooding can have health effects, such as mold growing in basements, and financial ones like property devaluation.
“Properties went up, so I have to pay more taxes to get to a house that I can’t even pass through in a normal way,” Tania said. “If it was [the mayor] that lived there, that he had to go through it, it would be fixed. But there’s children, people that need medicine, medical attention. There’s children that need to go to school. We need to go to work.”
Polisena said that, despite not having a firm timeline for the remedy, it was “huge” to hear funds were approved in February. He said DeMarco’s email was a positive one and lauded her work on moving the issue along. He added that the Rhode Island congressional delegation — Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed and Reps. Jim Langevin and David Cicilline — have been working on the matter as well.
Polisena encouraged residents to reach out to and press the federal government for a more definitive date on when work will begin.
“The keyboard cowards who keep emailing the media need to email the feds,” he said. “We’ve done everything we could … It’s like dumping money down a hole, there’s nothing we can do. We do have a solution and the solution is that the feds are going to come in, they’ve approved the money.”
For Tania and Cynthia, along with others affected along Belfield, the solution couldn't come soon enough. They showed the Sun Rise the back of 51 Belfield Drive, which has sandbags near the basement to prevent floodwaters from seeping in.
To make matters worse, Deputy Police Chief Joseph Razza confirmed to the Sun Rise that there was a call in the last week reporting a bear sighting in the Belfield Drive area. That report came just a few days after a bear was also seen in the Central Avenue area. He noted that unlike in the Central Avenue sighting, police did not confirm the bear’s presence in the Belfield Drive area.
“We pay very high taxes in Johnston and we are not being treated with respect and dignity. It is like we do not matter at all,” Tania said. “Now, not only do we have to worry about a flooded street with dirty water, trees collapsing, the pavement disintegrating … now a bear is walking through out the same area that we have to walk through.”