LEOMINSTER, Mass. – Heavy rainfall — nearly 10 inches in six hours — flooded parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with two communities declaring a state of emergency as water poured into homes and forced boat rescues of residents. Concern about a dam listed in poor condition led to more evacuations.
Weather officials described the rainfall as a “200-year event."
More rain was in the forecast for Wednesday. Winds and flooding from Hurricane Lee were expected to affect Rhode Island, eastern Massachusetts, southeastern New Hampshire and central and coastal Maine 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. All schools were closed and two shelters were opened.
Mazzarella said the city has not seen such widespread damage since a hurricane in 1936. He said most buildings downtown flooded and some collapsed. Rail service into Boston also was disrupted.
“The storm stopped over us last night. It didn't move for close to five hours. It had dumped 11 inches (28 centimeters) of rain,” Mazzarella said at a news conference Tuesday morning. Mazzarella said Leominster has 12 hills, “and obviously, from those hills comes the water.”
On Monday night, in a recording posted online, Mazzarella had urged people to “Find a high spot somewhere." He said if there were any injuries they were minor.
Leominster’s director of emergency management Athur Elbthal said two dams out of 24 in the city sustained damage, but held. He said the city is working to reinforce them.
Matthew Belk, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boston said a trained spotter near Leominster recorded 9.5 inches (24 centimeters) of rain. Belk described the rain as a “200-year event” meaning the chances of it happening in any given year is one in 200. The record for rainfall in a single day in Massachusetts was set Aug. 18, 1955, when Tropical Storm Diane dropped just over 18 inches (45 centimeters) in Westfield, Belk said.
Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey said she's keeping a close eye on forecasts of heavy rains Wednesday and how Hurricane Lee may affect the state as she toured damage in North Attleborough, about 55 miles (88.5 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 has reached out to the Biden administration, the congressional delegation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance.
Steve Forcier, 62, said he was half asleep in his mobile home when firefighters knocked on his door late Monday.
“It was a little intimidating, a little frightening,” he said Tuesday morning outside the school where he and others spent the night. “When I looked out there, I said, ‘Holy crap!’”
The water outside was about waist-high, Forcier said, but he had minimal damage to his home when he evacuated. Firefighters used inflatable rafts to rescue residents of the mobile home park.
In North Attleborough, Nathan Bonneau’s home was condemned Tuesday after a building inspector assessed the flood damage. He said the water rose nearly to his height of 5’10” (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 and improvements to the dam.
Mazzarella said Tuesday there were at least several homes in Leominster where “the water washed out around them" and foundations could be seen about 8 feet (2.4 meters) below, as well as underground pipes.
According to a city planning document, low-lying areas of Leominster are particularly subject to periodic flooding. The North Nashua River experienced three notable high flows in March 1936, September 1938, and August 1955.
“During these floods, streets were inundated, dams were overtopped and bridges collapsed," the plan said.
Other communities experienced flooding Monday night. In North Attleborough, the town said in a statement that crews worked to clear water from roads Monday night and about 200 homes had flood damage. Some roads in Rhode Island and in Nashua, New Hampshire, also were flooded.
In Providence, Rhode Island, downpours flooded a parking lot and parts of a shopping mall on Branch Avenue. Firefighters used inflatable boats to help rescue more than two dozen people who had become stranded in their cars.
Both Leominster and North Attleborough declared states of emergency.
Storms were expected Wednesday afternoon and evening, and with some producing heavy rain, the National Weather Service said.
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 occurring in different parts of the world are fueled by climate change.
Mathew Barlow, a climate scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, said it’s been hot and humid in the region, resulting in more moisture in the air. That's related to climate change since warmer air can hold 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.
This story has been corrected to show the name of the school superintendent is Paula Deacon, not Paul Deacon.