(NECN: Peter Howe, Fall River, Mass.) - A little Nissan inhaled by a sinkhole on a washed-out Fall River street: It's certain to become one of the iconic images of the Great New England Flood of March 2010. Wednesday, NECN was on hand as that car was towed off -- and efforts began to rebuild Mount Hope Avenue, one of the hardest-hit streets in one of the hardest-hit cities of New England.
"I've never seen anything like it,'' said Robert Stevens of South Coast Tow, who was assigned to bring out the Nissan, the last of five vehicles trapped on the street after a colossal river of sewage erupted from a new $160 million "combined sewer overflow" system built under the streets and roared down Mount Hope Avenue about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday. Stevens explained that engineers first had a backhoe loader drive onto the bumpy, cratered street -- which countless residents compared to looking like it had been hit by an earthquake -- to see if the ground was strong enough to support his truck. Then he gingerly edged out on the bumpy surface, hooked up a chain and tow bar to the car, and pulled it away, revealing water sloshing around inside the headlight assemblies. The car's owner, a Portuguese-speaking immigrant who didn't want to give her name or go on camera, said she had woken up to see waves of water crashing over the car and couldn't get it started because so much water had flowed in.
It could take weeks to rip up and repair the street and the storm drains underneath, and officials may not know just how bad the damage is until the asphalt surface has been ripped off.
Paul Miniacci, who's lived on Shepard Street near Mount Hope Avenue for 40 years, is among those who spent the night without heat, other than a quartz space heater he found in the basement and turned on in his living room. He also woke up to no hot water and no way to cook anything other than what he can warm up in his microwave or on a hot plate. "It's definitely an inconvenience, but a lot of people have been hit a lot worse than we have. We'll survive,'' Miniacci said. With his street cut off by jersey barriers and fences, Miniacci, 68, who's due for a hip replacement next month, was waiting to have his car towed to a nearby church parking lot so that he could resume getting out and around.
City Councilor Pat Casey, who lives nearby in the Old Sandy Beach neighborhood, said residents along the affected stretch of Mount Hope Avenue have been offered the opportunity to evacuate to city shelters at Silvia School and the Somerset high school, but so far, only a few residents have moved out, and only to family members' places.
New England Gas officials on the scene have warned residents that it could be two more weeks before gas is restored. Electricity, cable, telephone, and water and sewer service still work in the affected area, however.
Another part of Fall River ravaged by the eruption of the CSO system was Columbia Street near Santo Cristo Church. Messias Gravito came up with his family to see the scene after seeing a giant pile or dirt, rocks, and sand that had been washed down the hill. "I was like, 'Holy .! ' It was a big hole!'' Gravito said.
Across town at South Watuppa Pond, Pete Bernard was anxiously watching sump pumps in his flooded basement. He says it is the highest level he's ever seen the pond, and he has lived there since 1953.
It's reports of extraordinary flooding like that -- Fall River got about 8 to 9 inches of rain in 40 hours this week, after already having been hammered with 7 inches of rain during the storm of the week of St. Patrick's Day -- that lead Casey to put credence in the early verdict of city officials: This was not a design flaw in the $160 million CSO system, but a catastrophic deluge that overwhelmed the system. (The CSO project consists of about three miles of tunnels that can collect and hold up to 38 million gallons of storm runoff and sewage during storms, which can then be pumped over to the city sewage plant for proper treatment after a storm is over. The alternative would be letting stormwater tainted by raw sewage pour into Mount Hope Bay during heavy storms when the combined storm drain/sanitary sewer network gets overwhelmed by rainwater.)
In Boston during the mid-March storm, Massachusetts Water Resources Authority officials briefly allowed raw sewage to pour into Quincy Bay because the alternative, they said, would have been to flood and destroy the Nut Island sewage plant or let raw sewage back up in people's basements.
But in Fall River, Casey said, she's yet to see any evidence that officials should have or could have made a similar call or taken similar steps to let the stormwater flow into the bay unimpeded in order to prevent the kinds of sewage eruptions that ripped down Mount Hope Avenue and Columbia Street and into residents' basements and cars.
"It was just that it came down too fast, and there was already so much water in the system,'' Casey said. "Nothing could have stopped it."