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Flooding disaster is latest blow for hard-luck RI

WESTERLY, R.I. (AP) — For 20 years, he parked his car there. Now, the parking lot outside Bradford Printing and Finishing was a lake, and 60-year-old Kenneth Guilmette stood on its shore. What he saw turned his stomach.

Swirling gray water from the Pawcatuck River had engulfed the 103-year-old textile mill, surrounding its brown brick buildings and smokestack. In the distance, the roof of a submerged red Ford Mustang — left behind by someone in the rush to get out before floodwaters invaded — was barely visible.

Guilmette thought about the future of the mill, and his job as third shift fireman in the boiler room.

"I worked here a long time, put a lot of sweat into the place myself," he said Thursday morning. "To see it swamped like this is a terrible thing. A terrible thing. Especially just before retirement."

"I can tell you I'm sick to my stomach about it. I'm afraid. I'm afraid of losing my livelihood here," he said.

Similar fears now plague many in Rhode Island, where a round of epic rainfall has touched off the worst flooding in 200 years and closed shopping malls, small businesses and mills.

While some people pumped out water-logged basements, shoveled mud or scrambled to hire heavy equipment operators to fill in washed-out sidewalks, others were left to ponder something more permanent — losing their jobs, perhaps for good.

For a hard-luck state with nearly 13 percent of its residents unemployed, the aftermath of the storm has added more woes.

While damage estimates can't be made until the floodwaters recede, Gov. Don Carcieri said Thursday they could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Just when Rhode Island didn't think it could get hit by any more storms ... economically we've been hit by a storm that's perhaps surpassed any other state in the nation," said U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.

State officials said they could give no estimate of the number of workers idled by closings.

Many small businesses were affected.

In downtown Westerly, the raging Pawcatuck River ran under a Route 1 bridge that links Westerly and Pawcatuck, Conn., prompting authorities to close it as a safety measure.

That cut off a building housing the In Store Avon Center, run by Julie Cofone, 52. She arrived Thursday morning to find yellow police tape blocking her from getting to the store, and a police officer telling her she couldn't cross.

"We've only been open four months," she said. "For us starting up, we were doing well our first few months. Then to have this all of a sudden. ... Hopefully, it's not going to be a major setback."

On the Westerly side, Sheila Fravesi, 53, owner of The Bean Counter coffee shop, was surveying the damage to inventory in her basement from river water that backed up into hers and other basements. Her shop lost electricity Tuesday, and the surging water lifted up refrigerators in her basement, spilling their contents.

"I'm going to be closed for a few days. That's my take for a few days. I've only got a couple of girls working for me, so it impacts their salary. They won't be able to work," she said.

At Bradford Printing, where they have been printing camouflage uniforms for the U.S. military for decades, the fear among the approximately 50 workers was that it might never reopen because of the flood damage.

"I don't want to say it's going to put us out of business, because it might not," said Dan Kenyon, 49, the boiler room manager. "We're certainly going to have a lot to look at when the water goes down. I don't want to make assumptions about what we'll see when that happens.

"I like to be optimistic, but it's quite a disaster," he said.

There were some bright spots around the state Thursday. The sun shone. A stretch of Interstate 95 reopened, as did state offices.

In Cranston, the city said it would extend a two-week grace period for property tax payments by homeowners and businesses, to April 30.

"That will allow people a chance to get another paycheck in, or to give businesses time to reopen so people can start earning money again," said Robin Schutt, director of administration for the city. The city also will waive fees for building permits for all flooding-related construction.

And under state law, employers forced to lay off workers temporarily because of the flooding can help them get unemployment insurance sooner by applying for a waiver with the Department of Labor and Training. The law waives a one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance if the unemployment is caused by natural disaster or state of emergency.

On Friday, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano plans to tour the flood-ravaged state, amid calls by Rhode Island officials for emergency federal aid.

"Everybody's tired," said Leslie Parent, 40, of Hopkinton, who's had water in her basement for a week. "We've had enough. It's horrible."

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