Scott MacKay Commentary
4:55 am
Mon March 28, 2011

R.I. floods one year later

Providence, RI – This week marks one year since the devastating March floods of 2010. WRNI looks back at last spring's floods in a week-long series of reports. Scott MacKay kicks off our coverage with this essay.

It is fashionable in some political circles to blame the federal government for all of our nation's ills. But there are times when there is nothing like a strong national government.

One year ago, the skies over Rhode Island turned slate gray. Then the rain came and poured in a torrent not seen in our corner of New England in more than a century.

The water washed over the banks of our ancient rivers, spilled over roads and swamped basements and businesses all over the state. In a state where workers once walked from mill housing to factories, many homes were built along the rivers that powered the American Industrial Revolution.

Sewage treatment plants were overwhelmed as raw wastewater surged into Narragansett Bay.

Schools closed. Mold invaded houses. Rhode Island institutions as iconic as the Warwick Mall and as small as your cousin's new home addition were under water.

State and local responders did their best: the police and firefighters worked untold hours of overtime to pump out basements and direct traffic around flooded roads and bridges. Then-Governor Carcieri moved quickly to declare a disaster.

But it took the federal government swinging into action to bail a beleaguered state out of this watery mess. At the time, our state had an unemployment rate of almost 13 percent and a state budget hemorrhaging red ink.

The strength of the national government was needed to get a struggling state back on its feet. The federal government's flood response was blemished badly in 2005 during the bungled Katrina effort in Louisiana.

But when the water overflowed the river banks in Rhode Island, the Federal Emergency Management Agency moved rapidly, spurred by the state's congressional delegation and laser-like attention from other federal agencies.

Three Obama Administration cabinet secretaries, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing and Urban Development chief Shaun Donovan came to Rhode Island on inspection tours.

According to Sen. Jack Reed's spokesman, Chip Unruh: The result was around-the-clock assistance from a full alphabet soup of federal agencies and nearly $200 million in money from such federal arms as the Small Business Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Economic Development Administration. Even the Internal Revenue Service got involved, delaying the tax filing deadline for those affected by the disaster.

The government helped lessen the blow and provided a safety net for the tragic losses endured by Rhode Islanders. And the fast response reminded us all of what is precious in our state; nothing could stop the millions in property damage but no lives were lost in the worst floods in the memory of anyone living.

Our state and federal governments make mistakes. But the next time you hear some one launched on a full anti-government rant, remind them that last year, when we desperately needed our government, it was there for us.

In times of tragedy and natural disasters all over the globe, American responders are coveted for the help our nation has long provided.

As imperfect as is American government, is it any wonder that people the world over are protesting and dying the streets for our form of democracy?

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

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