Flooding, Heavy Rains Swamp Leominster, North Attleborough
NORTH ATTLEBOROUGH, MASS., SEPT. 12, 2023…..Gov. Maura Healey was lacing up her LL Bean boots as her SUV pulled up to the police station here late Tuesday morning. She put on a Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency jacket as she got out of the car, making clear she was in storm damage survey mode.
“Once again, we find ourselves at the scene of catastrophic flooding,” Healey said. She added, “I love to visit all of our 351 cities and towns, but no one wants to see me coming because of this.”
The governor scrapped plans to be in New Hampshire on Tuesday and instead got a first-hand look at the damage caused by torrential rainstorms that hit hard Monday night in Bristol County towns like North Attleborough and North Central Mass. locales like Leominster. Some parts of the region got between six and nine inches of rain Monday, the National Weather Service said, and the governor said the state deployed boats in Leominster to get people to safety.
“I am here today to, first of all, thank first responders, folks who’ve worked so hard through the night to evacuate people, to shore things up. A lot of progress has been made, and I’m just so grateful to them for their work,” Healey said. “Also, we’re here in solidarity with our town administrators and with our local and state officials. I am committed to making sure that our administration does everything we can to help restore a semblance of order here to folks in this region and around the state that [were] so devastated by this flooding, this weather.”
Healey’s first months in office have coincided with frequent deluges, and even a few tornadoes. While former Gov. Charlie Baker faced record snowstorms during his first year in office, Healey early in her tenure has been dealing regularly with damage — to people and infrastructure — from heavy rains.
Inside the town’s storm command center at police headquarters, a map displayed trouble spots and closed roads, and a smart screen showed live radar. Healey got a rundown of the problems the town dealt with Monday night into Tuesday: five inches of rain in three to four hours, about 200 homes reportedly damaged by flooding, more than 150 calls for police and fire service, and the closure of major thoroughfares like Route 1, Town Manager Michael Borg said.
The governor also met Kristine, a nursing instructor from North Attleborough who said she “never had a drop” of water in her house until Monday night, when six feet of water came flooding in and forced her family to evacuate.
“That’s the thing with the severity of these storms, people are seeing things they’ve never seen before,” Healey said.
As the tour of the command center and a press conference wrapped up, Kristine got word that her house had been condemned. Healey consoled her in the parking lot, placing a hand on her shoulder, hugging her and helping Kristine get some space from the TV cameras and reporters watching.
“That’s just heartbreaking. Unfortunately, we’re seeing more and more of this around the state as we see more and more severe weather here and across the country,” Healey said after relaying Kristine’s story at a later stop in North Attleborough. “I’m committed to working with town administrators, our local officials and our state officials — appreciate MEMA, they were on the scene all night here and will continue to be — and I will press hard for the federal delegation and the Biden administration to get relief and support.”
Healey said she had reached out to the Biden administration and two members of the state’s Congressional delegation before arriving in North Attleborough on Tuesday. She said the work of securing federal aid begins with collecting as much information as possible on the damage caused by the storms.
Local officials like Borg and Public Works Director Mark Hollowell brought Healey to two spots in town to demonstrate what they were dealing with. First up was a flooded parking lot at a former Fisher College location on Elm Street, followed by a washed-out culvert that Hallowell said was built by hand in 1865.
“We were out here at about one in the morning. The water was coming across this road about two feet off the ground. And as it was coming across the road and down the other side, it completely undermined the east side of the roadway here,” Hallowell said. “Before we can let people on this, even temporarily, we have to get a look under the bridge so we have to wait for the water go down a fair amount.”
Old Post Road, which Hallowell said is “the connection” between North Attleborough and Attleboro, will be closed in the area of Allen Avenue until the town can get a better assessment of the culvert. Drivers will instead be re-routed onto Route 1. And Hallowell gently reminded Healey that the state could help by providing grant money to replace the culvert.
“This bridge is on one of our lists for the next bridge to be fixed. We submitted for a small bridge design grant a couple months ago,” he said.
From North Attleborough, Healey traveled to Leominster, where flash floods tore up roads and stranded drivers, saturated homes and forced evacuations Monday night, leaving the city in a state of emergency.
“It’s a miracle that people made it, we haven’t had any fatalities,” Mayor Dean Mazzarella said during a televised press conference Tuesday morning.
To illustrate the force of the flooding, the mayor said a full dumpster showed up on the city’s riverwalk.
“We don’t even know where it came from,” Mazzarella said.
A Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency official said rain impacts were “nowhere near” the same in neighboring Fitchburg. The state also targeted emergency management staff on Tuesday to flooding impacts felt in North Attleborough.
Schools were closed Tuesday in Leominster and the Frances Drake Elementary on Viscoloid Ave. was opened as a shelter.
The National Weather Service said more soaking rain looks likely for Wednesday afternoon and evening. And given that the ground in some parts of the region just got saturated with six to nine inches of rain on Monday, NWS meteorologists said the possibility for two-plus inches of rain means “concerns are growing that our hardest hit localities could again face a flash flooding threat.”
The meteorologists also acknowledged that “all eyes are on” the Thursday-through-Monday forecast as Hurricane Lee turns north. They said the latest National Hurricane Center forecast “shifted the cone of uncertainty just a hair east so it only scrapes Cape Cod.”
“However, given we are 4-5 days out, nothing is set in stone,” the NWS said. “Regardless, we will most certainly see impacts in the form of high surf and high rip current risk as soon as Wednesday when energy out ahead of Lee reaches our south/southeast facing shores.”
[Michael P. Norton contributed to this report.]