Johnston's Belfield Drive residents thrown a life-line (via interstate access road)

Emergency construction, home buyouts & a flood funding bond referendum become more likely with each storm


The water’s still waist deep and starting to freeze along Belfield Drive, cutting 10 Johnston homes — and around 30 residents — off from civilization, emergency services, fuel and food deliveries. Following a cooperative effort between local and federal officials, help’s on the way, via an emergency access road off the I-295 shoulder.

“Police officers just came in a huge truck and told us about the evacuation but they aren’t taking us by force,” Belfield Drive resident Cynthia Nova said on Friday, Jan. 12. “We have food here. We wouldn’t be able to buy food since we don’t have a car on the other side of the water.”

Home buyouts, emergency construction and a possible bond referendum to fund flood mitigation all loom on the still cloudy horizon.

Nova hasn’t left the house much over the past couple months. Storm after storm has deposited and accumulated at her doorstep, covering the road she takes to the market, to the gas station, to the pharmacy and the veterinarian — to everywhere.

“We don’t have a car on the other side and I have two cats I can’t leave,” Nova said. “One of my cats is a diabetic and needs his medicine and wet food every day.”

The town issued a Jan. 12 mandatory evacuation for Belfield Drive residents.

“On Friday evening, residents of Belfield Drive who were stranded as a result of the flooding were evacuated,” wrote town Emergency Management Director and Johnston Police Chief Mark A. Vieira. “At the deepest portion, the water level on Belfield Drive measured 40 inches in depth making it difficult for our military Humvees to travel through the flooded areas of the roadway.  Due to public safety concerns, the affected residences were determined to be unsafe for occupancy and the Town of Johnston issued a mandatory evacuation order.”

Earlier this week, Vieira said the town was “in the process of working with members of RI DOT and the Federal Highway Administration to install an emergency access road at the end of Belfield Drive for use by emergency personnel.”

Gaining emergency access to Belfield Drive proved more difficult than expected.

Dead End Street

Belfield Drive’s a dead-end street, and at the end of the street you can see and hear the traffic passing on Interstate 295, less than an underhand stone’s throw away. Between the highway and the waterlogged town road, however, a fence and a culvert block access.

The town wanted to start construction on “a temporary access road for emergency vehicles on Monday,” Jan. 15, but “over the weekend” they were “informed of a regulation implemented in 2017 which restricts the temporary construction of roadways connecting to interstate highways,” according to a press release from the office of Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. “This regulation prohibits any such construction of a temporary access road from Belfield Drive to I-295 South, similar to the one constructed in 2010.”

Johnston’s public safety officials consulted with federal officials and determined the Belfield Drive residents may not be reachable for as long as two weeks (under current conditions). In the meantime, they’d need food and heating oil (and potentially, access to emergency services).

Several sources confirm Polisena had been trying to get help from Gov. Dan McKee’s office throughout the weekend, but the governor’s office was slow to offer solutions. The mayor had 30 constituents who were unreachable by emergency vehicles and minutes mattered.

He contacted the state’s federal delegation — they were on it, but once again, it was a holiday weekend, and an inaccessible neighborhood was unacceptable. The town needed vehicle-access to Belfield Drive, and the water was now too deep for the town’s Humvees to cross (the water had not fully receded following the Dec. 18 storm).

After striking out with the governor’s office, sources reveal Polisena worked back channels to reach Washington D.C., starting with Helena Foulkes, McKee’s Democratic rival (he beat Foulkes to the nomination in 2022).

Foulkes, who serves on Johnston’s School Building Committee, connected town officials with former Rhode Island Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, who now serves as the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Raimondo connected Polisena’s office to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

On Wednesday morning, Polisena provided an emergency agreement he signed with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), seeking Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approval for a “temporary emergency locked gate access to Interstate 295 from Belfield Avenue in Johnston,” which ultimately permitted the town to start construction at 6 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Gov. McKee’s Press Secretary Olivia DaRocha provided a statement late Wednesday morning recapping the state government’s efforts to help Johnston’s flooded property owners.

“The State, including our office, has been in contact with the Town of Johnston regarding recent flooding issues,” DaRocha wrote via email. “RIDOT put in a request to FHWA to get authorization for the town to create temporary access to Belfield via 295. RIDOT is currently awaiting FHWA’s response.”

The document itself indicates the agreement for emergency highway access was only secured after Polisena talked to the FHWA.

“In accordance with the conversation between the Mayor of Johnston … and the Federal Highway Administrator, the Town of Johnston agrees to the following stipulations,” reads the letter, signed by Polisena and RIDOT Director Peter Alviti Jr.

Polisena wouldn’t comment on his conversation with the feds (and why the state didn’t have that conversation on behalf of the town). Instead, Polisena thanked the Ocean State’s federal delegation —U.S. Rep. Seth Magaziner, and Sen. Jack Reed and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse — for their continued support.

He estimates the access road will cost the town about $500,000 (construction combined with traffic details, first-responders, diesel fuel, hotel fees, etc.).

“I’ll do what I can to help,” Polisena said Wednesday morning. “But I can never do this again.”

Last week, as the fresh rain fell, Johnston received a small dose of good news regarding federal disaster declarations from earlier storms.

Later Wednesday morning, Polisena’s office issued a press release, which included the following statement from the mayor:

“I’m grateful for the hard work of Senator Reed, Senator Whitehouse and Representative Magaziner for helping the Town receive this permission from the federal government. This one-time agreement ensures that while the main road remains impassible, those residents will regain access to essential food, medicine and home heating oil deliveries by our first responders, whose vehicles were incapacitated in the flood waters last week. While this is an essential first step to preserve the health, safety and welfare of the residents still there, the only permanent solution forward is home buyouts for all properties affected by persistent flooding. I look forward to working with the federal delegation to achieve that goal.”

Tearing Down Fences

Workers in fluorescent gear stood off the highway shoulder, down an embankment. They cut through the metal fence and awaited the arrival of steel plates, which would be placed across the culvert, and truckloads of gravel for the emergency road surface.

Alex Cordeiro, general superintendent for DiGregorio Construction, said the crew hopes to connect the dead end of Belfield to the interstate by Thursday morning, Jan. 18. The freezing temperatures made the job uncomfortable, but doable.

“This was a Herculean task,” Polisena said, standing on the side of the highway. “But we got it done.”

After the road’s built (Cordeiro estimated around 24 hours), emergency crews and home heating oil deliveries (fuel delivery vehicles “will be considered emergency vehicles” in “subfreezing weather”) can utilize the access road to reach the homes on Belfield Drive during two short, one-hour windows each day (from 10-11 a.m. and from 7-8 p.m.).

And if an emergency does pop up on Belfield, they will have access when needed, until the water subsides.

“We would estimate it would take 1-2 weeks for the water to recede enough for first responder Humvees to get through,” Polisena said Wednesday morning.

The emergency agreement expires on Jan. 26.

“This is why they gave us the Jan 26th closing date for the road, or until the water recedes enough for first responders to pass by,” Polisena said. “For reference, the Dec. 18th storm brought the water level up to three feet.  Prior to the last rain storm, there was four inches of water still there from that December storm.”

Floods Too Frequent

Polisena’s administration has been working on a plan. On Wednesday morning he drove his public safety vehicle onto Interstate 295 South, to check on the start of access road construction. The storms have been frequent and furious since the mayor took office, almost exactly one year ago.

Mid-week, several inches of rain, a high water table and saturated top soil led to more widespread flooding in Johnston. Once again, Atwood Avenue sank under water, cutting off access to Stop & Shop and surrounding businesses. Police shut down the ramps to Route 6.

Christina Rondeau, owner of Rondeau’s Kickboxing on Atwood Avenue, posted an update to the gym’s social media accounts.

“I have spoken to the Mayor of Johnston, Atwood (Avenue) is a state road,” Rondeau wrote. “Apparently the state does not want to do anything about the issue so Johnston took it upon themselves to fix the issue. They have a ($2 million) grant and plan on fixing the situation asap.”

Rondeau also said she’d be calling on her local state representatives to help focus funding on the Atwood flooding issue.

Tenants at a residential complex were the first to sound the alarm.

“The Park Plaza apartments, located at 20 Park St., experienced flooding on Wednesday morning affecting approximately 20 units,” according to Vieira. “About six residents had to be evacuated from Park Plaza by the Johnston Fire Department.”

Johnston firefighters carried residents and pets from the complex through thigh-high water.

“We sent our Engine-1 and our boat to the apartment complex,” said Johnston Fire Chief David A Iannuccilli. He estimated “approximately 20 units were flooded.”

A cooperative effort followed, between local relief organizations and the town.

“The RI Red Cross, in conjunction with the Town of Johnston, set up an evacuation shelter for affected residents at Rainone Gym located at 45 Mill St.,” Vieira said. “Approximately seven people stayed at the shelter until it was closed on Friday once arrangements were made for alternative living quarters at the Marriot Courtyard in Lincoln.”

Residents from Belfield Drive have also been sheltered at the hotel, following Friday’s subsequent mandatory evacuations.

“Approximately 20 people were successfully evacuated from Belfield Drive utilizing a F-750 large body dump truck provided by the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 57, located at 873 Central Avenue, Johnston,” Vieira wrote via email earlier this week. “Arrangements were made for the affected residents to be transported to alternative living quarters at the Marriot Courtyard … Ten people between four homes refused the order to evacuate and remained in their homes. The residents who stayed behind assured public safety personnel they had sufficient food and supplies.”

Rescue crews carried residents on their backs. They climbed into boats and bobbed to neighbors in need. In most of areas of town, however, the water sank back into the Pocasset River. On Belfield, it was a different story.

Polisena estimates around 8-10 homes were cut off by road flooding, and around three of those homes were flooded (in all around 30 residents were affected; 10 stayed in their homes and 20 were sheltered in the Lincoln Marriot).

“An Industrial pump is currently operating on Belfield Drive to pump the large body of water and mitigate the flooding,” Vieira said.

The Worry Spots

Last Tuesday, flood waters devoured the Ocean State’s lowlands. Widespread flooding was reported across Rhode Island, and according to DaRocha, on Jan. 9, “RIEMA activated the State Emergency Operations Center … to assist municipalities with emergency response operations.”

“As we transitioned our operations from response to recovery, RIEMA also contacted the municipalities and requested initial damage assessments,” DaRocha wrote Wednesday to the Johnston Sun Rise. “The assessments are used to review and verify the impact of a disaster or emergency. Additionally, as you know, the Governor signed a declaration of disaster emergency which is essential in positioning the state and local municipalities to receive FEMA reimbursement for damage related to the flooding.”

In the end, the town, and its property owners, will have to examine whether recent weather trends are anomaly or Johnston’s newfound reality.

“The areas of the town that worry me the most are areas near the Pocasset River, specifically Belfield, Johnston Memorial Park, Atwood Ave, Lafazia Drive and other surrounding neighborhoods of the river,” Polisena said earlier this week. In December, Polisena told the Johnston Sun Rise about government plans to buy homes on Belfield Drive, demolish them and install wetlands.

“The home buyout process application for Belfield Drive is submitted to the federal government,” Polisena explained earlier this week. “While there are 10 houses, I believe there are about 17 individual parcels of land between vacant property and residential homes. We are hoping to hear back from the federal government within a few months.”

Government buyers may be knocking on Belfield Drive doors by summer, estimates the mayor.

“The big picture is we have two options,” Polisena argues. “We can either continue that status quo; piecemeal this project-by-project, year-after-year, or the town can invest in substantial flooding upgrades. My specific course of action is we are currently working on a master engineering list of areas prone to flooding.”

Polisena has ordered engineers to draft a list of “recommended projects that will help alleviate flooding for the highest number of people possible.”

“Once we get that final list of projects recommended, we get a specific price, then go to a general obligation bond in the November election,” Polisena said. “Let the voters decide. Tell them they have two options: we can continue to Band-Aid the problem by pumping water, closing roads and dispatching first responders or we can spend money and do this right.”

The mayor insists the state refuses to address flooding issues on Atwood Avenue (Route 5), a state road. And the town itself, working with the federal government following flooding on Belfield Drive in 2010, already attempted a buyout program on Belfield. One house was purchased, demolished and replaced with a retention pond (and other flood mitigation structures). They worked a little, but not enough to prevent last week’s flooding.

“We need to be honest with the voter and tell them what the average property tax will be to pay for the bond, and … just let (them) decide,” Polisena said. “I know people where property taxes are their number one priority no matter what. I’ve also spoken to quite a few people, particularly lately, who are being severely paralyzed by flooding, whether in their own neighborhood, Atwood Avenue, or another route to work. We’re at the point now where the flooding is affecting (our) productivity and economy. But that would be my ultimate plan. Once we have the specific list of projects and the cost, let the voters decide.”

On Wednesday morning, he pondered the possibility that once again Belfield Drive property owners may not want to leave their homes (even if it’s for fair market value).

In that case, Polisena said the town may need to consider more drastic action. He quietly said the words “eminent domain.”

Back on Belfield Drive, Nova said her family’s “good” and they’re just trying to stop  subfreezing temps from wrecking their plumbing.

“Grateful 295 is being opened so we can eventually get oil,” Nova said Wednesday morning. “We all need to keep our homes warm so the pipes don’t freeze.”


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