Historic storms strike Washington County, flooding record books

Over winter break, the University of Rhode Island and surrounding communities were hit with two major storms, causing flooding across Washington County.

The first storm hit on Dec. 18 in the midst of URI’s finals week. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, located in Kingston, clocked 2.76 inches of rain. The second storm occurred on Jan. 10, with the weather station clocking 3.5 inches of rain. Both storms broke the historic records for the highest amount of rain ever recorded on the respective days.

The campus fared well during both storm events over the break, according to David Lamb, the director of facilities operations at URI.

“The biggest worry has been all the rain we’ve had,” Lamb said. “We have a lot of mitigation measures in place to redirect water to ponds in and around campus in order to protect the buildings.”

Matunuck, a coastal community located next to South Kingstown Town Beach, was one of the areas that was hit the hardest.

“All day Wednesday the road was so flooded it was impassable,” Pat McMullen said, a resident of Matunuck about the January flood. “There was almost two feet of water on the road. It was all washed out with significant flooding in the trailer park.”

McMullen expressed his concern over the storms and flooding occurring so close together.

“Typically we don’t get storms out of the southeast,” McMullen said. “Both the December and January storms were from the southeast. From that angle the roads flood faster and don’t drain out as quickly.”

While northeastern storms are common, he had never seen winter storms coming from such a unique direction.

During both storms, the South Kingstown Police Department shut down Matunuck Beach Road. The road serves as the sole access point for residents to come and go from the community, trapping the residents in Matunuck while flooding continued. McMullen was one of the many residents unable to leave during the storms.

“The frustrations aren’t with the town of South Kingstown, but with the state not fixing a historic problem,” McMullen said. “It’s frustrating to not be able to work because of a state issue.”

Matunuck Beach Road runs parallel to the coast, and directly accesses Deep Hole, a popular surf spot. Due to its proximity to the ocean, the road is prone to flooding, as seen during the storms this winter. The sea wall built to protect the road has degraded over the past few decades. The question of how to restore the sea wall has been a contentious topic amongst residents, according to McMullen.

The flooding also had an impact on the students that live in Matunuck. Garret Kelly, a third-year at URI and a resident of Matunuck, was finishing his finals during the first storm.

“We just had to wait it out,” Kelly said. “Once the water had drained into the trailer park it wasn’t too bad and we could drive to school.”

While residents of the town were concerned with being able to leave, others were concerned about being able to get in. Matunuck is home to neighboring establishments, The Ocean Mist and The Pub. The restaurants serve as local hangouts for community members and URI students.

Both establishments were forced to close during each storm due to safety concerns, and a majority of their staff was unable to drive in to work. The restaurants sit on the ocean side of Matunuck Beach Road, and the structure extends on the sand, supported by wooden stilts.

“It’s always kind of a concern with the building,” Finnegan Hawksley, a doorman at the Ocean Mist, said. “Even before the storm, the waves were coming up to the porch, and the building always kind of shakes.”

Hawksley explained that even after the restaurant reopened, he still had to park at the town beach and walk to work because of the condition of the roads, which posed a safety concern for the staff.

According to employees, neither the Ocean Mist or The Pub sustained any serious structural damage during either storm. Both establishments lost their stairs down to the beach. The Ocean Mist lost their stairs in the Dec. 18 storm, while The Pub lost theirs during the storm on Jan. 10.

Ocean Mist employees expressed that their deepest concerns lie in lost business for the Matunuck community from the increasing amount of storms.