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Homeland Security chief tours flooded R.I.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano got a firsthand look at the flooding devastation in Rhode Island on Friday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano flew over flooded swaths of Rhode Island on Friday, calling the damage significant and saying she's considering a plea by officials for additional federal aid for the economically battered state.

Some areas of the state were still under water after three days of pounding rain throughout the Northeast this week sent rivers overflowing to record levels, hitting Rhode Island harder than any other state.

The National Weather Service said it did not expect the Pawtuxet River, source of much of the flooding, to go below flood stage until at least Sunday.

President Barack Obama had already declared a disaster in much of the state. That triggers some federal money, but the state is required to pick up some of the tab.

In a news conference with Napolitano on Friday, the state's congressional delegation pressed for more federal help in the form of grants, rather than loans. Rep. Jim Langevin, whose district was hardest hit, says families, individuals and businesses need the help as soon as possible.

The delegation had already sent Napolitano a letter asking that a major disaster declaration be extended to the entire state. They also want the federal government to waive a requirement for the state to pick up 25 percent of the costs of the disaster response and to speed federal help to pay for ruined infrastructure.

Gov. Don Carcieri has said the worst flooding to hit the state in at least 200 years might have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I, said the state was in crisis and needed help.

"If there is a part of the country that needed federal support, it's Rhode Island. We were in the economic storm before anybody else. We've been in it longer, and now we've been hit with another storm," he said Thursday.

Shopping malls, small businesses and mills are still under water in the state, which has nearly 13 percent of its residents unemployed. Kennedy said Rhode Islanders were wondering about when the devastation would end, and when they would get help.

'A terrible thing'
One of those was Kenneth Guilmette, 60, who for 20 years worked at Bradford Printing and Finishing in Westerly. On Thursday, he watched as gray water from the Pawcatuck River swirled around engulfed the 103-year-old textile mill, surrounding its brown brick buildings and smokestack. In the distance, the roof of a submerged red Ford Mustang — left behind by someone in the rush to get out before floodwaters invaded — was barely visible.

Guilmette thought about the future of the mill, and his job as third shift fireman in the boiler room.

"I worked here a long time, put a lot of sweat into the place myself," he said Thursday morning. "To see it swamped like this is a terrible thing. A terrible thing. Especially just before retirement."

"I can tell you I'm sick to my stomach about it. I'm afraid. I'm afraid of losing my livelihood here," he said.

State officials said they could give no estimate of the number of workers idled by closings, but many small businesses were affected.

In downtown Westerly, the raging Pawcatuck River ran under a Route 1 bridge that links Westerly and Pawcatuck, Conn., prompting authorities to close it as a safety measure.

That cut off a building housing the In Store Avon Center, run by Julie Cofone, 52. She arrived Thursday morning to find yellow police tape blocking her from getting to the store, and a police officer telling her she couldn't cross.

"We've only been open four months," she said. "For us starting up, we were doing well our first few months. Then to have this all of a sudden. ... Hopefully, it's not going to be a major setback."

'It's quite a disaster'
On the Westerly side, Sheila Fravesi, 53, owner of The Bean Counter coffee shop, was surveying the damage to inventory in her basement from river water that backed up into hers and other basements. Her shop lost electricity Tuesday, and the surging water lifted up refrigerators in her basement, spilling their contents.

"I'm going to be closed for a few days. That's my take for a few days. I've only got a couple of girls working for me, so it impacts their salary. They won't be able to work," she said.

At Bradford Printing, where they have been printing camouflage uniforms for the U.S. military for decades, the fear among the approximately 50 workers was that it might never reopen because of the flood damage.

"I don't want to say it's going to put us out of business, because it might not," said Dan Kenyon, 49, the boiler room manager. "We're certainly going to have a lot to look at when the water goes down. I don't want to make assumptions about what we'll see when that happens.

"I like to be optimistic, but it's quite a disaster," he said.