On March 8, town and state officials outlined the key points of the proposed to a crowd of roughly 50 residents at the Johnston Senior Center.
The plan is meant to address the extensive flooding problems in portions of Johnston that have become more frequent and pervasive in recent years — most recently, last March — and is the town’s application for the federal funds to pay for the work to minimize damage from future floods.
Town Planner Pamela Sherrill and Town Engineer Lorraine Caruso were joined by NRCS engineer Kevin L. Farmer, state conservationist Phoukham Vongkhamdy, and Dean Audet, vice president of Water Resources and Solid Waste at the firm Fuss & O’Neill to give residents an overview of the plan, field questions and collect feedback.
“Public outreach is needed in order to go to Congress for plan approval,” Sherrill said. “We need to show them [Congress] that we can do it right, that we can do it well, and that we can do it as expediently as possible.”
With an estimated price tag of $28.6 million, the plan includes installation of seven floodwalls, demolition of 11 properties, and dry floodproofing (watertight sealing) of specific properties, among other structural and nonstructural measures.
Over 90% of the project’s total cost will be paid for using federal funds and the remaining portion will be covered using various other types of funding, Farmer explained.
The main “high hazard areas” listed in the plan are Rotary Drive, South Bennett Drive, Fletcher Avenue, the Rich Box Company property, Reservoir Avenue, Riverview Terrace, the Willowbrook Apartments, and the Simmons Brook culvert.
Sherrill said the town — not NRCS — will act as purchasing agent for the homes slated for demolition, and sought to reassure homeowners that their interests will be fully protected.
“These are voluntary acquisitions,” said Sherrill. “No one is saying ‘You have to move.’ This does not fall under eminent domain.”
All costs associated with relocation are covered by the plan, she added.
Over the past 20 years, the Pocasset River flooded surrounding areas at least six times. The repetitive flooding not only causes property destruction (Johnston’s average annual flood damages currently top $2 million), but also poses serious public health, environmental and safety issues.
“The flooding is becoming more frequent and widespread in recent years,” Farmer said, noting that the town has already received $1.8 million in federal funding based on data collected for a study in 2001. Those funds will be used to purchase properties near the flood areas and for the construction of a flood wall, but Sherrill noted that it is a separate project from the flood mitigation project currently on the table.
The Pocasset River project is split into two parts, Farmer explained:
- The first piece involves design and engineering logistics of the watershed plan.
- The second component includes an environmental impact assessment of the areas identified.
Farmer said that the NRCS focused on what flood prevention measures were least environmentally damaging, and what retaining structures would be least obtrusive and most aesthetically pleasing.
He emphasized to residents that officials were still in the very early stages of the plan, noting that the project still requires engineer site visits for all properties in question, as well as Department of Environmental Management (DEM) permits.
Audet, of Fuss & O'Neill, backed Farmer's assessment.
“This is a very conceptual plan — it’s a bird’s-eye view of the entire watershed plan,” Audet added.
Altogether, the plan will cost between $26 and $30 million over a period of five years at the very minimum, Farmer said, with the scheduled ultimately determined by how quickly the federal and state governments release the funds to support the town's work.
“There is a huge need across the state when you look at areas that were flooded a year ago,” said Sherrill.
Farmer added: “It could be funded right away or it could take years.”
Reactions to the plan’s details were mixed, although several residents at Tuesday’s meeting said they were pleased to see steps being taken to address this growing issue.
“I just have one comment,” said LaFazia Drive resident Jerry Dunn: “The sooner the better.”
“I guess it’s something,” said Frank Barcellos, of Bellfield Drive, after the meeting. Bellfield Drive, located upstream from many of the documented problem areas, has not been included in the proposed plan. Barcellos said he's worried that construction downstream might negatively affect his street and the surrounding area upstream.
Paul Desrochers, whose raised ranch style home on Melody Lane is one of the homes proposed to be elevated, said that he supports the project and that it is necessary, but still has doubts about the logistics of his particular case.
“We love the area and we just hope we don’t have to move,” he said. “It really is a great place to live.”
Sherrill encouraged residents who have additional comments or questions concerning the plan to contact either her or the town engineer.
The 2007 study of the roughly 20-square-mile watershed, which includes residential, commercial and industrial sites in both Johnston and neighboring Cranston, was completed in 2008 by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
JohnstonPatch has posted a complete .pdf version of the flood mitigation plan . Hardcopies of the plan are available in the town clerk’s office at town hall, the and the Department of Public Works on Irons Avenue.