Providence’s sewer systems are not prepared for the amount of rain falling on the city this year, according to Mayor Brett Smiley. And all that extra water is wreaking havoc and endangering lives.

Smiley said during a press conference on Tuesday that the city had to evacuate over thirty individuals from cars and businesses in the northern part of the city near Branch Avenue on Monday. The city also arrested people who looted businesses in the area. In Cranston, an entire building was condemned and 24 families lost their homes. 

Smiley said the city has recently made some upgrades to the city’s sewer system, but that it may not be enough.

“Even the most robust sewer system can't handle as much rain as we've been receiving in recent storms in such a short period of time,” he said. “We're going to continue to invest in our outdoor outdated stormwater system.” 

This week’s floods hit one of the city’s lowest-income and lowest-lying neighborhoods. According to research from the National Institute of Health, that is consistent with global trends. Researchers also found that people with lower incomes tend to be less prepared for risk and less financially able to cope with it afterwards. 

Smiley acknowledged that climate change in Providence is expected to disproportionately hurt lower income communities of color, but said the city has a plan to address that. 

“The city’s climate resiliency plan has particular focus to what we call climate justice zones, which are neighborhoods that feel the effect of climate change more acutely, which are disproportionately lower income, marginalized communities of color areas in South providence and others,” he said. 

The mayor also said residents should take their own proactive measures to mitigate the worst effects of too much rain, like tearing up asphalt and installing rain gardens, which are better for soaking up excess rain than a hard surface like pavement.

“The better strategy is to help people remove pavements from lots that have been entirely paved over – where the only place for the water to go is into the sewer – to have strategies like rain barrels and bioswales so that we can trap the rainwater where it falls into, let it work its way out naturally so that we don't have to treat it or have an overflow of sewer system,” he said. 

Smiley said that, while there is no funding available for residents interested in that sort of landscaping, the city can help residents who live in climate justice zones and would like to plant a tree.

“We do have significant funding available for trees,” he said. “These tree wells are a way to capture rainwater. It also helps with urban heat island effects. And those resources are actually specifically restricted to the climate justice zones.” 

Brown University climate scientist and oceanographer Baylor Fox-Kemper says it’s good that the city is taking action on upgrading its sewer infrastructure, given that we can only expect more rainfall and flooding as the climate continues to warm.

“The warmer the air gets, the more moisture it can carry,” he said. “So when we have a storm, we could release more, faster.” 

Fox-Kemper says all the extra rainwater Providence has been experiencing this summer has scientists alarmed that it could possibly contribute to pollution in Narragansett Bay. 

“When you get more rain you get more runoff, and that more runoff can lead to more excess nutrients that then can lead to dead zones and deoxygenation events,” he said. “So as we're trying to clean up the wastewater treatment going out into the bay, at the same time this extra rainfall is kind of working against that by adding more runoff, so all kinds of interesting things are gonna happen. So we're eagerly collecting information.”

And the rain is not over yet. Matthew Belk, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said we can expect a large burst of rain in Providence in a short span of time on Wednesday. And that, he said, could lead to more flooding. 

“The ground is saturated. It really hasn't had a chance to dry out, meaning it'll be much more conducive to getting flooding faster,” Belk said. 

For more information on how to stave off flooding, you can head to the City of Providence’s website.

Metro reporter Olivia Ebertz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter/X @OliviaEbertz.