Getting back to work after the flood

West Warwick, R.I. – West Warwick's Main Street shows no sign of the intense floods that swept through Rhode Island earlier this spring. But many of the town's small businesses paid a high price for flood-related damage. And some business people question whether the federal government has done enough to help them recover.

The Nunes Construction Company is back in business, but it didn't happen easily. Company owner Ron Nunes says he spent more than $100,000 repairing flood damage after the nearby Pawtuxet River washed over its banks and devastated the surrounding area.

"Our office was destroyed, our building was severely destroyed," Nunes says. "We lost construction equipment here because it was flooded. We lost a significant amount of inventory, which was stored out here on the property, because the river came through, and it took away a good deal of our inventory product of sand and gravel and that sort of stuff."

Nunes says he knows business owners like him have to get themselves back on their feet -- but there's only so much they can do on their own. He worries that without more help from the state and the feds, the Pawtuxet could flood more easily the next time - because of the newly accumulated sediment. Nunes says the federal government should have done more to help when disaster struck Rhode Island.

"At six o'clock in the morning, there was an earthquake in Haiti," he says. "By noontime the same day, the president was on TV, pledging 100 million dollars. Sent an aircraft carrier there, marines on the ground, started purifying water in one day. We are now six weeks deep, and we've got the SBA, four percent loans."

The SBA is the federal government's Small Business Administration. According to Spokesman Carl Sherrill, after the floods the SBA approved more than $22 million in loans for Rhode Island. Cherrill says that's more than the combined total received by the state in the last two decades.

"The average business loan that we've made in West Warwick was a little bit over $50,000," he says. "Which is an indication to us of how bad people were hit."

Millions more in assistance has come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. But some West Warwick business people are frustrated that they haven't been offered grants or other forms of direct assistance.

Kevin McGee is the general manager at Nunes Construction. He's also president of the Pawtuxet Valley Chamber of Commerce, so he's accustomed to the sight of boarded-up buildings downtown.

"We've already been in a depressed economy," McGee says. "We were just starting to see the end of the slide, and now this has put some death nails to a lot of small businesses. And it's affecting the Chamber also - that a lot of these small businesses can't afford even to pay dues to the Chamber, anymore."

Across town, in West Warick's Natick section, the spring floods caused tens-of-thousands of dollars in damage to Dianna Solimeo's hair salon and photography studio. Solimeo had to be rescued by boat as the surging waters breached her businesses. Solimeo reopened her shop earlier this month. She says the warm response from her customers makes her feel optimistic about the future.

"People had had brought food, your neighbors - you're hugging and crying together - and now they see you're open," Solimeo says. "They just run into say how cool it is that you're open, and get me an appointment - I need a pedicure, I need photos taken. So I do feel very loved and supported for our community as a whole."

But Solimeo agrees with other local business owners who think the federal response has been stingy.

"I'd just like to see aid for businesses other than a loan," she says. "You know, there's businesses that have had such devastation. You're talking a 70- to a-100-thousand dollar loss. I mean, even if you get approved for the loan, you've got to be able to pay it back. How do you do that when you're not making any money?"

Just a quarter-mile away from Solimeo's business is the part of Natick that was hit the hardest by the flooding. This is an industrial area with a string of car repair shops and used car lots. The flood wiped out $2 million worth of cars at the D and H Auto Group, causing the company to relocate elsewhere.

"If it costs, $30,000, $40,000, to repair this, I should get the money from the government," says Anthony Santilli, who owns four buildings here on Aster Street - including the one that housed D and H Auto Group.

Senator Jack Reed, the state's most senior member of Congress, says he understands the frustration of Rhode Islanders hurt by the flood.

"For somebody who has lost their home, had their business operations disrupted for a long period of time, there's no fast enough or big enough response," Reed says. "So I accept that. I understand that."

But reed also defends the federal response to Rhode Island's floods.

"This response is significant in terms of its speed," Reed says. "FEMA was here before the second wave of floods, the president declared a disaster within hours of our request, literally, and we have money flowing in, not only FEMA money. We have additional federal money that is not typical or normal."

That additional money is $150 million in grants that will be divided between Rhode Island and Tennessee, another state hard hit by flooding. Reed says that should help businesses in West Warwick - even if he understands that it probably won't be enough.

"We have to do more. We will do more," he says.

Back at Nunes Construction Company in West Warwick, owner Ron Nunes says his family has had different businesses in this area going back to the 1950s. But he says he's never seen anything like the floods that hit last spring. And he's worried his business wouldn't survive another one.

"The government, expeditiously, needs to do their part, because what happens now that we've spent in excess of $100,000 here?" Nunes says. "What happens again if it floods again in two months?"

Those are among the questions that many in West Warwick - and elsewhere in Rhode Island will be asking for as long as the great flood of 2010 remains fresh in their memories.