Too little too late or better late than never?
Four months later and at least two subsequent significant flood events since September’s soaking storms, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set up a disaster recovery center (DRC) in the Johnston Senior Center.
“I suspect the delay was with how long it took for President (Joe) Biden to sign off on approving the disaster declaration,” Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. said Tuesday morning. “This is my first disaster declaration I’ve deal with so I’m not sure how long it typically takes. I believe the news broke Jan. 7 that Biden approved the request for the September flooding and the center was set up just two weeks after that.”
FEMA staffers and the Small Business Administration (SBA) have set up the DRC in a room to the left of the Hartford Avenue senior activity hub entrance.
Any property owners in the state, business or private residents, who were “affected by the severe weather that took place from Sept. 10–13, 2023,” can stop by the DRC in Johnston, or a second location in Cumberland.
“They liked Johnston because of its central location,” said Senior Center Executive Director Richard DelFino Jr. “This is a comfortable venue for people to be received and serviced, six days a week. They’ve been starting early in the morning and leaving in the evening around 6:30 p.m. Throughout the day, FEMA and SBA reps (have been) meeting with individuals who have documented losses in the storm and the weather conditions that took place back in September.”
No fixed timeline has been set for the DRC’s future at the Johnston Senior Center. Property owners have approximately two months, until March 7, to start the FEMA relief application process.
“I’m appreciative to everyone at FEMA for selecting Johnston as their Providence County center,” Polisena said. “I am hoping everything runs smoothly and the subsequent disaster declarations for December and January also get approved and Johnston can host the centers again.”
Those working at the senior center have been flown in from across the country. They see each state immediately after its worst day — or in the Ocean State’s case, four months after a terrible day.
The FEMA staffers have been sent to Johnston to help humanize the process.
“It’s always more helpful for people who have questions (if they) can to talk to someone in-person rather than 1-800 numbers and email,” Polisena said. “What I’m really hoping for is the December and especially January declarations get approved because those floods caused more damage, as a whole, than the September one.”
Some residents who have been hit the hardest by recent flooding may still not be able to travel off their street. Back on Belfield Drive, some homeowners are still stuck behind a foot-and-a-half of water lingering in the roadway.
Two weeks ago, Polisena had ordered a mandatory evacuation of the Belfield Drive homes cut off from emergency services by flood waters.
Nearly a week later, he had finally secured federal permission to build an access road from Interstate 295 South to Belfield’s dead-end, so that emergency services could reach the stranded residents.
By Wednesday, Jan. 17, Polisena announced construction of the temporary access road was ready to commence (the mayor estimates the road and immediate associated flood expenses could cost taxpayers as much as $500,000). The road opened approximately 24 hours later.
“The access road was completed and operational by Thursday morning (Jan. 19),” Polisena said. “It will remain up until the original closure date, which is Friday, Jan. 26. I was told by the USDOT (U.S. Department of Transportation) and the FHA (Federal Highway Administration) there would be absolutely no exceptions regarding an extension or a reopening at a later date. This was a one-time deal due to all the extreme circumstances.”
Heating oil deliveries have been permitted to use the access road twice each day, as needed, during tightly scheduled windows.
“As of today (Tuesday), the water on Belfield sits at about 18 inches,” Polisena said. “Residents with trucks or SUVs may cross the water if they have the ability to do so. I am hopeful that by Friday, all of our emergency vehicles, including standard police SUVs, are able to get through the water. If by some chance they can’t, we will have to deploy the Humvees, again.”
More than one property owner on the dead-end street has contacted the Johnston Sun Rise to express concerns regarding the proposed home buyout program for Belfield Drive. The property owners also say they have been contacting Johnston’s federal legislators — Rep. Seth Magaziner, Sen. Jack Reed and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse — but have heard little in response.
The Sun Rise reached out to all three of their offices to ask about the federal delegation’s efforts to help Johnston residents (a) during this time of flooding and evacuation, and (b) going forward, as they face potential home/land buyouts?
The residents said they are worried, because so far, they have received no written notice (from town, state or federal officials) concerning impending buyouts and potential, future use of eminent domain to take the properties and land (should the residents/property owners refuse "fair market value" offers). Polisena estimates the process may take a few months to get rolling (and he expects deals may be proposed by mid-summer).
Instead of responding individually, communications staff for all three office-holders (Magaziner, Reed and Whitehouse) decided to send the Sun Rise a “joint statement.”
“Our offices are working together to help flood victims across the state, including residents of Belfield Drive,” Reed, Whitehouse, and Magaziner said in their joint statement. “The delegation has delivered federal aid and flood resiliency funding in the past and will keep advocating for it.”
In a follow-up question, spokespeople for all three offices were asked why the FEMA DRC took more than four months to open in Johnston.
No response was received from Magaziner or Whitehouse's offices by press-time. Only Reed’s office responded Wednesday morning.
“We don’t have a window into the Administration’s deliberations while reviewing the request,” wrote Chip Unruh, spokesman for Sen. Reed’s office. “These requests often take time and sometimes data and evidence has to be double checked to ensure the eligibility requirements are met. The state made the request in early November and the delegation fully supported it. We are grateful to the Administration for giving the state the additional time it needed to complete its request and for ultimately approving it after careful review. This declaration is making a world of difference for the 225-plus Rhode Islanders that have already applied, even if it took a couple extra weeks to get there.”
Strange Days Ahead
A source inside FEMA called the timing of the Johnston DRC opening “a little weird.”
Polisena’s awaiting word on follow-up disaster declarations. He said the town has been seeking engineering plans for town-wide flood remediation. Once those plans arrive with price tags, his administration may take a flood-mitigation bond referendum to voters.
The past three flood events have been particularly taxing for the town’s fire and police departments.
“Any flooding in the town is a concern when it comes to public safety,” said Johnston Fire Chief David Iannuccilli. “We will always find a way to reach residents; the problem is when our response is delayed due to weather conditions. The weather conditions will determine what equipment is needed at the time of the emergency.”
Both departments are in for quite a bit of overtime, and a lot of outside duty in subfreezing temperatures. First responders waded through waist-deep water and used boats to reach residents.
“This has been very trying for both police and fire, but this is what the men and women signed up for,” Iannuccilli said. “We are always here to help the residents of the town no matter what.”
Sources inside FEMA said it’s also a little unusual to set up a disaster center in the middle of January, outside the hurricane season. Since arriving in Johnston, FEMA staffers have been closely watching flooding across Maine (a trip to Vacationland may be their next assignment). If this year’s any indicator, agency employees may be spending more winter weeks in New England, as the region copes with flooding in spots typically unaccustomed to flooding.
The Johnston DRC will be open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and closed on Sunday.
Johnston’s local emergency management team coordinated with the state before federal officials came to town.
“The Town of Johnston worked with the RI Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA) to assess the extent of damage and costs resulting from the Sept. 10-11, 2023 rain/flood events,” according to Johnston Emergency Management Director and Police Chief Mark A. Vieira. “RIEMA reviewed the damage assessments from cities and towns in Providence County and the state subsequently determined the extent of damage warranted submitting a request for a federal disaster declaration for assistance in Providence County.”
Town officials have been urging property owners to report storm damage to the town, to aid in securing disaster declarations.
“President Biden approved the disaster declaration, and on Jan. 7 … (FEMA) announced that federal assistance would be made available to affected individuals in Providence County to supplement recovery efforts in the areas affected by the September weather events,” Vieira wrote Tuesday evening. “Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-interest loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.”
According to Vieira, “Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams from FEMA have been in town going door to door to register people who may not have registered for disaster survivor assistance.”
He welcomed his federal counterparts: “We appreciate the involvement of RIEMA and FEMA and their efforts to assist our residents after these recent unprecedented weather events.”
Fair Market Value
Ward 5 Town Councilman Robert Civetti has discussed the situation on Belfield Drive with Polisena. His district includes the dead-end street.
“However as of this date I do not have any specifics on the ‘home buyouts’ or ‘eminent domain,’” Civetti wrote via email early Tuesday morning. “We did discuss looking into the home buyouts as this appears to be the only option at this time.”
Several Johnston neighborhoods, in addition to Belfield Drive, may be about to change significantly. In December, Polisena mentioned potential home buyout programs for frequently flooded properties on the following streets — Salina Avenue, Rotary Drive and River Avenue.
“I believe that the Mayor indicated that there was grant money available for these buyouts,” Civetti explained. “Accordingly, the acquisition of this property would not impact the fund balance/reserves of the Town. If the property is acquired, I believe the Town should then look to either transfer the property to the Land Trust or perhaps see if the property can be turned over to the State of Rhode Island … and maintained as open space.”
Down the hill from the freshly built (but currently unoccupied) Amazon robotic fulfillment center, and a new, under-construction rehabilitation hospital, Belfield Drive lives in the shadow of several major development projects.
“In addition, with the ongoing development of the property just east of Belfield Drive (future location of the rehab hospital) I do not envision the flooding issue getting any better on Belfield Drive,” Civetti said. “It is very unfortunate that these residents may have to sell their homes, but if the experts (engineers and federal agencies) are saying that there is nothing we can do to ensure their safety and the safety of our first responders then I am not sure what else the Town can do, but … offer them fair value for their property.”
On a drive to Belfield Drive last Wednesday, Polisena said the town mostly defers to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for stormwater management plans, permitting and approvals linked to new development.
“These rain storms are becoming more of the norm vs the so-called ‘100 year’ storm,” Civetti said.
Every additional inch of impermeable surface is one less inch unavailable to water seeking absorbent topsoil.
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