Local Features
4:35 am
Thu March 31, 2011

One Year After the Flood: Warwick Sewage Plant

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – A year ago this week severe flooding damaged homes and businesses on a massive scale. Flood waters soaked cities and towns across the state, but Cranston, Warwick and West Warwick were at the epicenter of the destruction. One casualty of the floods was the Warwick Wastewater Treatment Facility.

Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian stands on a grassy berm that acts as a levee for the wastewater treatment facility. While gazing out over a patch of trees he recalls seeing these six-foot tall and tremendously heavy sewage pumps scattered across the landscape.

"All over the woods here, thrown like children's blocks, the water had just picked them up and thrown them everywhere," says Avedisian.

The water rose quickly. In less than an hour the plant was submerged under six feet of water and completely useless.

"Someone from FEMA looked at me and said, young man the problem is you have millions of gallons on the wrong side of the levee' and I said, I understand that, I need you to help me figure out how to get it back on the other side," says Avedisian.

Chief plant operator Gwin Cox pads down the length of a rectangular treatment pool filled with microscopic critters eating away at the waste. He drops a line into the pool and takes a reading.

"It tells me how much dissolved oxygen is actually in the tanks, that's what keeps our bugs alive. No air, they die," says Cox.

Flood waters ruined the computers that took these readings. So Cox heads out to the treatment pools twice a day. He curses the flood on cold and rainy days.

"You have to pay 200% more attention to what's going on when the computer would watch what's going on before," says Cox.

Before the flood, he would be here, inside the master control room. But six feet of rainwater and sewage filled the building. And once the water receded, it smelled. "It was more afterwards the sludge it smelled like wet dirt, like loom," says Avedisian. The Sewer Authoritiy's superintendent Janine Burke says it got worse when the clouds parted.

It took Burke's team five days to pump out the facility. Huge tanks were emptied and cleaned before sewage could flow back through the plant. Then, Burke assessed the damage.

"Motors, pumps, chain drives, basically everything else had to be gone through, wires, electrical wires were like a nightmare, miles and miles of copper wire we had to pull and replace," says Burke.

While Burke was cleaning, Mayor Avedisian was talking about rebuilding with Curt Spaulding, the regional director for the Environmental Protection Agency. "It was Easter Sunday when I went to church and Curt Spaulding goes to church with me, and we were having a discussion and he said don't rush to do A B and C because I think we can be a real partner here,"says Avedisian.

Spaulding helped Warwick get federal dollars for green technology. Remember those treatment pools filled with microscopic critters? Well, these huge blowers pump air into the pools to keep the bugs alive. Burke's waiting for quieter and more energy efficient replacements.

"This room will seem much bigger and much quieter when the new equipment is on board. I personally am going to like signing the electricity bills," says Burke.

That's because the bills will be nearly a third of what they are now. And it's likely Burke will make digital copies of them. The flood ruined a lot of files, and she's now emphatic about making backups.

"It's been a year and people have probably forgotten, but we're still dealing with it every day, not a day goes by that I don't say, oh that was in my desk, or ah, I lost that in the flood," says Burke.

Burke won't close the book on flood recovery until she's been fully reimbursed by FEMA. That will take another year, she thinks. When that happens, both Burke and Avedisian will take pride knowing that they didn't just rebuild the treatment plant, they made it better.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@wrni.org.