Many Rhode Islanders Still Lack Power as State Assesses Irene’s Toll

By and Laura Crimaldi | September 2, 2011

Pawtucket insurance agent Melanie Loiselle-Mongeon’s phone began ringing early Monday morning, the day after Tropical Storm Irene blew through the Ocean State. And it hasn’t stopped ringing.

“The majority of the claims are trees down,” she said Tuesday. “Trees on houses, on fences, on decks, on cars. We’ve seen a lot of food spoilage claims, too.”

Tallying the cost of Irene will take weeks as homeowners, businesses and governments assess the impact of the storm, but it’s certain to be in the millions of dollars. High winds downed power lines and trees throughout the state. Well over half the state’s National Grid customers lost electricity. State and local governments bought sandbags and paid overtime to road crews and emergency workers.

State and federal officials are now beginning the task of calculating the cost of the storm, the first step in determining whether the state qualifies for federal assistance. Meanwhile, the recovery continues.

“The scope and nature of this disaster obviously is significant,” said Lt. Col. Denis Riel, a spokesman for the state’s Emergency Management Agency and National Guard. “It’s going to take some time to assess. Right now we’re keenly aware that there are still many Rhode Island homeowners and residents without power.”

On Tuesday, National Grid reported that it had restored power to most of those who lost electricity. Still, some 133,000 of the utility’s 480,000 customers were without power as of Tuesday evening, with the largest number in Warwick and Pawtucket.

Schools across Rhode Island delayed the start of fall classes because of Irene, some until next week.

State health officials are encouraging residents to throw away spoiled food and are conducting rapid inspections of some of the 2,000 restaurants in the state that lost power.

Providence resident Maria Rodriguez has been preparing meals early, keeping her three young children inside her apartment after dark and playing board games with her family to keep busy since she lost power on Sunday. She threw out about $25 to $30 worth of food that spoiled in her refrigerator.

She added that she hasn’t seen any repair crews in her West End neighborhood.

“It’s aggravating. I want the lights back on. It’s like living in a cave,” Rodriguez said on Tuesday. “I’m very frustrated.”

Nearby, Sonia Rua stopped by her grandmother’s Providence apartment Tuesday afternoon to check on 79-year-old Gloria Baez, who has been without power since Sunday.

Rua said she is storing some of Baez’s perishable food in her refrigerator but some items had to be tossed out. Baez is also using a cooler to keep milk and butter cold.

“It’s hard,” said Rua. “She’s walking around in the dark. She’s showering in the dark.”

There are no estimates available for the cost of the storm in Rhode Island. Total losses from the storm along the U.S. Atlantic Coast – including damage and expenses incurred by governments – are likely to be about $7 billion, according to Jan Vermeiren, CEO of Silver Spring, Md.-based risk consultant Kinetic Analysis Corp., which uses computer models to estimate storm losses.

Kinetics did not calculate a damage estimate for Rhode Island, but it estimates that Connecticut experienced $281 million in losses.

Depending on the scope of the damage Rhode Island state government and its cities and towns may be eligible for federal assistance. In such cases the federal government typically covers up to 75 percent of the cost of repairing damaged roads, public buildings and hospitals and overtime costs incurred by governments.

Once a cost estimate is calculated, it will be up to Gov. Lincoln Chafee to petition Washington for federal help.

Gracia Szczech, federal coordinating officer at FEMA, said homeowners in the state probably won’t qualify for individual assistance.

“There haven’t been a lot of homes damaged that we’re aware of,” she said.

Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian said he expects the state’s public entities to qualify for federal aid. But he said the cost of Irene will “pale in comparison” to the damage inflicted by last year’s floods. After that disaster, tenants of the Warwick Mall alone spent more than $100 million on renovations.

Avedisian estimates that the city had more than 100 employees working overtime the day the storm hit. He said governments will continue to incur costs until the response to the disaster is over.

“We still have 12,600 people without power,” he said. “We’re asking for patience.”

While the first priority is recovery, officials said they know they will soon confront the question of paying for it.

“We’re still really focused on cleanup,” Providence city spokesman David Ortiz said. “But we’re keeping our receipts.”

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