Home buyouts ‘only feasible path forward’ for Johnston property owners affected by flooding?

As the town seeks funding for flood mitigation, severe weather events keep on coming


Residents on Belfield Drive in Johnston held a yardstick in the middle of the street to measure the rising water on Dec. 18. More than a week later, they’re still drying out.

“The water is still high but I am so so grateful to the Johnston Fire Department, the mayor and the Police Department,” Cynthia Nova said two days later, on Dec. 20. “They have been so helpful. Someone came in a Humvee and took my Mom to the market so she could buy food and water.”

Many Johnston property owners have had a soggy, destructive year and home buyouts may be in store for some residents on Belfield Drive, Salina Avenue, Rotary Drive and River Avenue.

Report Your Losses

Following severe weather events this year — like the tornado in August and the most recent flooding event last Monday — the town has urged residents to report losses to Johnston’s Emergency Management director, Police Chief Mark A. Vieira.

 “We haven’t heard back on either of these requests from the federal government yet,” Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. responded via email on Nov. 29. “I am more optimistic about the flooding declaration than I am about the tornado.”

A month later, Polisena’s predictions have proven correct.

“As far as the disaster declaration, it is my understanding the $2.8 million threshold for Providence County was not met for the brief tornado event,” Polisena wrote in response to follow-up questions on Dec. 27. “It was met for the Sept. 11 flooding, so now that must be submitted by the Governor and either approved or denied by President Biden.”

Last week, Polisena’s administration posted another request for flood damage estimates from homeowners in town. The town’s “currently working with the State of Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA) to assess the extent of damage and costs resulting from the rain/flood event that occurred on (Dec. 18).”

“Johnston homeowners and businesses affected by the rain event” should e-mail any incurred damage/costs to Vieira, Johnston EMA director, at EMA@johnstonpd.com, according to the town’s message.

“I think the issue is a combination of houses being built in areas they shouldn’t, aging infrastructure and increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events,” Polisena said. “With the most recent rainstorm, this is now our third disaster declaration in four months, which is just unreal. I am hopeful this will meet the $2.8 million threshold for Providence County and Governor McKee will submit it to President Biden to approve it.”

Residents are asked to include their property address, contact information, and a description of “incurred damage or costs directly related to (the Dec. 18) weather event,” and photographs, in the email.

“This damage assessment is necessary in order to explore the possibility of a Small Business Administration disaster declaration which would potentially involve homeowners and businesses,” according to the town’s post. “If you are unable to e-mail your damage assessment, please contact Chief Mark A. Vieira at 401-757-3116 in order to make arrangements to submit your documentation.”

Flawed Flow of Flood Relief

Polisena sees serious flaws throughout the disaster declaration process.

“I think the current process, like many things with the federal government, is archaic and broken,” Polisena argued. “The Stafford Act passed in 1988, has only had one significant update, being the DMA (Disaster Mitigation Act) of 2000, which focused on preparedness rather than relief.”

Johnston sustained significant tornado damage in August, and then flash-flooding closed sections of Atwood Avenue in mid-September.

“The current threshold, which is $2,933,691 for Providence County, is too arbitrary and exclusionary,” Polisena wrote. “And more problematic, the relief is predicated on residents submitting receipts for damage to the local EMA Director. This presents issues because many people are so busy with trying to recover after the damage, they’re totally unaware of the reimbursement.”

Following the most recent, pre-Christmas flood event of Dec. 18, the town was forced to close the walking path at Cricket Field (near the boat launch and deck) “until further notice.”

“There has been significant water damage in the area due to flooding,” the town reported on its social media accounts.

Polisena argues for more local control.

“The only solution I can currently think of is to give more power to local and state officials, who know their communities better than the federal government, to access funds,” he wrote. “Additionally, maybe it’s time for states to start their own disaster relief fund where local municipal leaders and councils could petition their own state for relief. Municipalities are too small to do it themselves. Johnston’s budget is $130 million; the state’s budget is $14 billion.”

The Mayor’s Boat

Flood issues have lingered along Belfield Drive for years.

In 2021, former Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena (the current mayor’s father) celebrated federal flood mitigation efforts with U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and U.S. Rep. James Langevin in a ceremony on the street.

Town officials shut the street down with a ribbon. Years earlier, they had launched a cooperative project in response to severe water events on Belfield Drive in 2010 and again in 2018 that completely cut residents off from civilization. The previous flood events forced the former mayor to reach some of his constituents by water via rowboat.

Local, state and federal officials gathered near the empty space that was once 68 Belfield Drive, to celebrate the completion of a floodplain restoration project, which was aimed at eliminating future flooding.

Former Mayor Polisena described past flood events as “horrific public safety disasters.” He helped secure federal funding for the Belfield Drive project through the USDA Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program. The EWP authorized the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to purchase permanent easements on eligible lands. Their goal was to “restore the floodplain functions in the easement area to their natural conditions.”

The “NRCS entered into an agreement with the Rhode Island Association of Conservation Districts (RIACD), which accepted applications from eligible landowners, secured appraisals and acquired land,” according to the USDA. The house that once stood at 68 Belfield Drive was purchased and demolished. Anti-flood structure construction commenced but did little to hold back the Dec. 18 storm.

“Insurance should be for incidents like an accidental fire, a broken pipe, etc., not for damage sustained from a storm where we received 10 inches of rain in six hours,” Polisena said in November. “No amount of preparedness can mitigate that. People should not be forced to pay deductibles and be subjected to higher premiums due to disastrous acts of nature, which are becoming more frequent and severe as time goes on.”

Belfield Buyouts on the Horizon

 “Specifically regarding Belfield Drive, I am also in talks with the federal government (again, Senator Reed) to reissue home buyouts to those residents and very hopeful they will take them this time,” Polisena wrote Wednesday. “The pump is still operating 24/7 to get the water out of there, but it’s going to take some time to recede. Belfield Drive acts like a basin from the three branches of the Pocasset that flow downhill through it.”

Last week’s water event made a real impression on Polisena.

“(When) I went through, it’s like I was looking at a lake,” he said. “There was just water as far as the eye can see.  What’s very alarming is that’s not a lake, it’s supposed to be dry land.”

Some property owners are facing nightmarish scenarios.

Polisena saw some evidence that previous flood mitigation efforts on Belfield Drive helped a little.

“Last time the water was 5 feet, this time it was a little over 2-3 feet, depending on the spot,” Polisena said Wednesday morning. “The Northern RI Conservation District, who spearheaded the project, informed me the original plan was to make a multi-acreage detention pond. However, only one homeowner participated in the buyout, so the current detention pond is a little under an acre. With that being said, I had a brief conversation with the engineer last week and we discussed with that amount of water, we may be beyond the point of further construction improvements and may focus on buyouts to put the land back in its natural state. I will know more when I meet with them next week.”

More Buyouts on Salina, River and Rotary

Meanwhile, the increased frequency of flooding in Johnston has Polisena looking forward and searching for solutions.

“Regarding what to do about the current flooding issues for residents, the only feasible path forward seems to be home buyouts,” Polisena wrote. “We are in the process of using federal funds to purchase two homes on Salina Avenue.”

As in the Belfield Drive case, the homes will likely be razed and replaced with flood mitigation structures.

“Our plan is to demolish the homes, create detention ponds and reroute the water in those ponds,” Polisena explained. “There is also another federal program, with federal funding secured by Senator Reed, for home buyouts on Rotary Drive and River (Avenue), which will start sometime next year.”

Polisena said the town has $2 million from Reed in federal funds “for planning/construction to fix the flooding” along Atwood Avenue (Route 5, a state road).

“We also have an additional $2 million request in with the state as well,” Polisena explained. “I’m very frustrated, as Atwood (Avenue) is a state road and has flooded for years. The state doesn’t seem to want to do anything about it so I’m going to at least try and do it ourselves. It’s a massive project that will take a lot of time and resources. I’m hopeful to have at least a construction plan in place with all of the funding secured by the time I am out of office. A huge thank you to Senator Reed for securing all this funding and being with Johnston and its residents every step of the way.”


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