New England getting more rain amid flooding and sinkholes, as Hurricane Lee barreled toward the region

Nearly 10 inches of rain fell in six hours earlier this week in parts of Massachusetts. The hevay rain created sinkholes in Leominster, Massachusetts, where cars sank into the ground at an auto dealership

Floodwaters surround vehicles and people after heavy rain in Leominster, Massachusetts, U.S., September 11, 2023
Floodwaters surround vehicles and people after heavy rain in Leominster, Massachusetts, on September 11, 2023.Rick Cinclair/Telegram & Gazette (via REUTERS)

Parts of New England already soaked with rain were expecting more precipitation on Wednesday, as residents in Massachusetts and Rhode Island spent the day cleaning up the flood damage while bracing for Hurricane Lee as it barreled north toward the region.

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey issued a state of emergency Tuesday night following the “catastrophic flash flooding and property damage” in two counties and other communities. The 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain over six hours earlier in the week was a “200-year event,” said Matthew Belk, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boston.

Healey said Wednesday that while there aren’t plans to call up the National Guard, the state’s emergency management agency is keeping a close eye on the weather and is prepared to offer assistance.

She said the state is monitoring the conditions of dams in many communities and urged residents to take seriously any warnings of potential flooding and to stay off the roads when ordered. “Something that looks pretty minor can, just within a couple of hours, turn into something very serious, potentially deadly and very, very destructive,” Healey said.

The rain created several sinkholes in Leominster, Massachusetts, including one at a dealership where several cars were swallowed up. 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.

Parking lots at several businesses briefly became lakes in Leominster and North Attleborough, and many front yards were still partially covered in water. For a second day, families were busy assessing the damage and removing flood-damaged debris. The sounds of generators filled the air in many neighborhoods, as residents worked to remove water from their basements.

Dawn Packer, who runs a North Attleborough home preschool, looked across the street Monday 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 a 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.”

After a dry day, it started raining in Leominster again on Wednesday afternoon. Parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island were under a flash flood warning. Earlier in the day, there were heavy downpours in Danbury, Connecticut, where officials said they had to rescue several people from vehicles stuck in floodwaters.

Rain from Hurricane Lee didn’t contribute to the flooding earlier this week. But it could inundate parts of the coastal Northeast during the weekend, forecasters said. Lee is traveling north and could make landfall in Nova Scotia, Canada, possibly as a tropical storm, forecasters said.

“The ground is saturated. It can’t take in anymore,” Dean Mazzarella, mayor of Leominster, said at a news conference Wednesday in the city about 40 miles (65 kilometers) northwest of Boston. But he said the city had emergency resources at the ready “for whatever the weather brings.”

Mazarella said up to 300 people were evacuated by Tuesday morning in the city, which has not seen such widespread damage since a 1936 hurricane. Most buildings downtown flooded and some collapsed. Rail service was also disrupted.

Mazzarella said the city was trying to help get assistance to homeowners and businesses that suffered damage. He said early estimates on city infrastructure restoration projects could be anywhere from $25 million to $40 million.

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

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. Scientists are finding that storms around the world are forming in a warmer atmosphere, making extreme rainfall a more frequent reality now. A warming world will only make that worse.

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