Cleanup will cost hundreds of millions, Whitehouse says

By:  Ted Hayes
EastBay Newspapers

BRISTOL - Three days after the most devastating floods Bristol has seen in generations, residents continue to deal with the effects: Ruined heaters, furnaces, floors and carpets, electrical systems and more. Friday afternoon, local, state and federal officials took a tour of some of the worse parts of town, and they got an eyeful.

The tour was organized for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who visited town a day after Gov. Don Carcieri flew in on a Blackhawk helicopter and saw the damage himself. Sen. Whitehouse said now that the federal government has included Bristol County on its list of Rhode Island disaster areas, the next step will be to secure as much federal help as possible to aid residents and businesses in the towns of Bristol, Warren and Barrington. It's a job he expects will easily run into the hundreds of millions statewide, he said.

One of several stops on the tour was the Bristol County Medical Center, which saw some of the most extreme storm damage. Bristol Fire Chief Robert Martin said the center experienced a backflow of raw sewage during the storm; all told, he said, some eight inches of sewage backed up into the facility. By Friday afternoon, when Sen. Whitehouse toured the place, most of the obvious signs of damage were gone. Portable storage lockers filled with equipment, furniture, records and more filled the parking lot, while dozens of industrial air movers sat near the rear entrance. Inside, most of the walls in the basement had been stripped of drywall; all that was left were studs and electrical boxes.

The contract to clean up the facility was given to A Touch Above flood and fire restoration of Fall River. Company president Brandon Campbell said his workers have been going around the clock since Wednesday and will be there throughout the weekend. Monday, the building is scheduled to be tested for air quality. Results are due back by Tuesday and if the building passes, there's a possibility it could reopen by next Wednesday. In the meantime, doctors and therapists are operating out of the center's twin, the Maple County Medical Center in Barrington.

Mr. Campbell told officials that the cleanup costs alone could run as high as $250,000.

While the medical center will prove a costly repair, it's by no means the only one. Chief Martin took Sen. Whitehouse on a tour of the Tanyard Brook, which runs from the State Street reservoir all the way south to Walker's Cove, near the intersection of Wood and Hope streets. Chief Martin, whose men have pumped out more than 400 cellars since Tuesday, said homes along the brook's path are some of the worst affected in town.

"You're talking some that had water up to the rafters, six, seven feet," he said. "Virtually everyone" along its path was affected.

Even those far from the brook had problems. Harbor Bath and Body Works owner Lynn Shaw, who lives at 12 Carol Ave., behind the Gooding Avenue plaza, was helping clean out the last of her basement when Sen. Whitehouse and officials arrived just before 5 p.m. The Shaws keep their bedrooms on the ground floor, and every one sustained serious damage. Everything - carpeting covering hardwood floors, and the joists underneath - will have to be taken out and replaced. She hasn't been able to be at work since the flood, she says, since there's been too much to do.

Still, "there's people who have it a lot worse than me," she said. "It could have been worse."

The floods couldn't have come at a worse time for Bristol, which like much of the state is facing tough budget problems this year. After touring the medical center, Sen. Whitehouse said now that the federal disaster designation is taken care of, one of his main priorities will be to help municipalities like Bristol, Warren and Barrington recover some of the tremendous costs incurred in responding to the floods. Specifically, he said that he's working to get an exception to laws that require a 25 percent local match when federal funds are released to municiaplities facing disaster-related costs. Such measures are essential in strapped Rhode Island towns, he said.

"That would be priority number one," he said.

The costs truly are enormous, said Bristol Town Administrator Diane C. Mederos, who went along for the tour.

But "we're happy that Bristol" is on the feds' radar screen, she said.

Meanwhile, the cleanup continues. Fire Chief Martin said his volunteers are still working to pump out residents' basements, a job that isn't required of them but has traditionally been done "to help out the town."

They've been aided tremendously by local contracting firms like CB Utility Co., Lannan Construction and others who have donated heavy duty pumps and crews, free of charge, and also to the several restaurants that have given free food to fire department crews as they help residents recover. The hospitality and generosity of restaurants including Bristol Bakery, Bristol House of Pizza and the Clubhouse on Tupelo Street has been a welcome gesture to his men, many of whom have worked brutally long hours for no pay.

"I can't say enough about them," said the chief.