Providence keeps flooding. State and city officials are paying attention

Mayor calls for more green space, sewer improvements; SBA starts process of helping flooded businesses

By: - September 12, 2023 5:19 pm

Weightlifter Sydney Collins sweeps the floors of the Providence Barbell Club on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, a day after the gym was flooded during heavy rains. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — The smell of wet earth filled the air as Providence Mayor Brett Smiley carefully stepped in front of a podium just feet away from a mud-filled alley at the Wanskuck Mill on Branch Avenue Tuesday afternoon.

Smiley was joined by Rhode Island Commerce Secretary Liz Tanner and U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) District Director Mark Hayward, as they toured the area the day after up to three inches fell on the city in the span of a couple hours.

The downpour flooded roads and businesses. Thirty people were at the shopping plaza near Route 146 southbound, all of whom were rescued by the Providence Fire Department and Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) Monday night, Smiley said.

“Recent rain storms are an example of the extreme weather we’re starting to see more frequently,” Smiley said during a 20-minute outdoor press conference.

After praising first responders, the mayor was less enthusiastic about reports of looting of businesses along Branch Avenue during the storm. Smiley did not confirm how many businesses were affected, saying it will likely “take a few days” for police to review cell phone videos — though damage could be seen at clothing stores Citi Trends and Snipes at the shopping plaza.

“There’s no world in which we give a pass to anyone who may have acted illegally last night,” Smiley said.

Providence Mayor Brett Smiley (left) speaks with Providence Barbell Club owner Dave Ethier, whose business suffered “thousands of dollars” worth of damage due to flooding on Sept. 11. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

Financial aid on the way?

Impacted residents and businesses can expect some financial relief, as Tanner and Hayward announced that they will look to free up recovery funds.

How soon Providence businesses can get that money isn’t clear. Hayward said the SBA is still collecting information, just as they did after a fire destroyed Block Island’s historic Harborside Hotel on the night of Aug. 18.

“We were very successful in getting an administrative declaration on Block Island in less than five days,” Hayward said. “Hopefully we will get as much information as we can to move forward.”

While Smiley held his conference outside, customers helped Dave Ethier clean up the interior of his business, Providence Barbell Club.  Ethier said flooding caused “several thousand dollars” worth of damage to his gym. 

Until everything is fixed, Ethier said his business cannot reopen, which is especially stressful since his gym is used to train weightlifters who are set to compete in the New England Weight Lifting Organization championship scheduled for later this month.

“Each workout from now to our competition is tremendously important,” he said in front of wooden training platforms still drying after getting soaked with storm water. “It’s tough — it’s not what I signed up for when I set up a business in Providence.” 

Snipes was one of a number of businesses looted during Monday’s flood. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

What can be done

Though Monday’s storm was what spurred Smiley’s conference, he spoke overall about the frequent rain storms that have halted traffic, destroyed homes, and even canceled the last day of the PVDFest in downtown Providence on Sunday.

The mayor said the city has committed $20 million in capital improvement funds to improve the city’s dated sewage system, but that more work needs to be done to truly mitigate storm surges..

“Even the most robust sewer system cannot handle as much rain as we’ve been receiving in recent storms in such a short period of time,” he said.

One solution, the mayor suggested, is getting more green infrastructure like trees to soak in the rains so that less water ends up in storm drains.

PEMA Director David Radcliffe said in an interview that if the storms happened 15 years ago, when there was slightly less development in an area like Branch Avenue, there would be more green spaces combined with the paved surfaces.

“It’s an urban center issue,” he said. “You have climate change and more asphalt — that’s a bad combination.”

Smiley also touted a $3 million investment by the city to repair the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier as another way to mitigate flooding, along with ongoing drain clearing and dredging efforts by the Providence Department of Public Works (DPW).

Though when asked about what can be done for less affluent neighborhoods further from the barrier, Smiley said “we have made other significant storm sewer upgrades throughout the city, including low-income and marginalized communities.”

With one to four inches of rain forecasted for Wednesday, Smiley urged residents to use the city’s 311 service to have the DPW address drainage issues. For emergencies, call 911.


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.