New England braces for more rain after hourslong downpour left communities flooded

People in flooded parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island are cleaning up even as they brace for more rain Wednesday

Michael Casey,Kathy McCormack
Wednesday 13 September 2023 19:50 BST

More heavy rain was in the forecast Wednesday in New England, where residents were cleaning up after downpours dropped nearly 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain in six hours and flooded parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The rainfall was a “200-year event," said Matthew Belk, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boston. Two communities declared a state of emergency and officials ordered evacuations out of concern for a dam listed in poor condition.

Rain from Hurricane Lee didn’t contribute to Monday’s flooding but could inundate parts of the coastal Northeast during the weekend, forecasters said.

Up to 300 people were evacuated by Tuesday morning in Leominster, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northwest of Boston, Mayor Dean Mazzarella said. That included residents of a high-rise apartment building and a nursing home. Schools closed and shelters were opened.

Mazzarella said the city has not seen such widespread damage since a 1936 hurricane. He said most buildings downtown flooded and some collapsed. Rail service into Boston also was disrupted.

On Monday night, in a recording posted online, Mazzarella urged people to “find a high spot somewhere." He said if there were any injuries they were minor.

Leominster’s director of emergency management, Arthur Elbthal, said two dams out of 24 in the city sustained damage but held. He said the city is reinforcing them.

Belk said a trained spotter near Leominster recorded 9.5 inches (24 centimeters) of rain. The record for rainfall in a single day in Massachusetts was set Aug. 18, 1955, when Tropical Storm Diane dropped just over 18 inches (nearly 46 centimeters) in Westfield, Belk said.

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey said she's keeping a close eye on the forecast and how Hurricane Lee may affect the state as she toured flood damage in North Attleborough, about 55 miles (89 kilometers) south of Leominster.

“It was really scary, the amount of water that fell in just a short amount of time and the incredible devastation that it caused,” Healey said, adding she had reached out to the Biden administration, the state's congressional delegation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance.

Dawn Packer, who runs a North Attleborough home preschool, looked across the street Tuesday evening to see a UPS truck floating in several feet of water. Soon her yard was flooding.

“We ran downstairs. It was dry. We were happy about that. I started putting all my child care center stuff up high. All of sudden, the door smashed open. The water was so forceful. It just smashed the door open and poured in, 4 feet,” she said. “The refrigerator just shot up into the air and fell down on its side. It was horrific.”

On Wednesday, a generator was rumbling in their backyard as Packard and her husband tallied their losses — as much as $30,000 to $40,000 to fix an electrical system and rebuild her business.

“It’s devastating to see,” Packer said, her voice breaking.

Nathan Bonneau’s North Attleborough home was condemned Tuesday after a building inspector assessed the flood damage. He said the water rose nearly to his height of 5 feet 10 inches (178 centimeters).

“It just kept getting worse,” he said. “I watched the water go from trickling into my garage floor to coming in my front door in a matter of 35 minutes.”

Outside a shelter where at least 80 people stayed overnight, Leominster Schools Superintendent Paula Deacon said “it’s been a very emotional roller coaster" for many.

“They don’t know what happened to their homes, many of them left with nothing," she said.

Early Tuesday, the city said people living in areas near a brook and the North Nashua River in Leominster should “immediately evacuate” as a precaution, “due to a potential issue at the Barrett Park Pond Dam.”

“This particular dam is one that we're actually about to replace," Mazzarella said.

The dam is a 15-foot-tall (4.5-meter-tall) earthen structure listed in poor condition and posing a significant hazard, meaning its failure could result in economic damages, but would not be expected to cause loss of life, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ National Inventory of Dams. The database shows it was last inspected in November 2017, though it’s supposed to be inspected every five years.

In 2021, the city was awarded a $163,500 grant from the state for engineering and permitting costs associated with repairs to the dam.

Some roads in Rhode Island and in Nashua, New Hampshire, were also inundated.

In Providence, Rhode Island, downpours flooded a parking lot and parts of a shopping mall. Firefighters used inflatable boats to rescue more than two dozen people stranded in cars.

Both Leominster and North Attleborough declared states of emergency.

New England has experienced its share of flooding this summer, including a storm that dumped up to two months of rain in two days in Vermont in July, resulting in two deaths.

Atmospheric scientists say floods in different parts of the world are fueled by climate change.

Mathew Barlow, a climate scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, said heat spurred by climate change means the air can hold more more water.

“As long as fossil fuel emissions continue, this will get worse," he said. “So this won’t be a new normal. This will be a way station on the way to ever more intense systems unless we choose to dramatically decrease emissions.”


McCormack reported from Concord, New Hampshire. Associated Press writers Holly Ramer in New Hampshire, Steve LeBlanc and Rodrique Ngowi in Massachusetts, David Sharp in Maine, Lisa Rathke in Vermont, and David Lieb in Missouri contributed to this report.

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