Flooding at Dean Estates Apartments in Cranston leaves families homeless

The apartments were flooded almost to the ceiling within 12 minutes

CRANSTON — As Ralph Amitrano Jr. walked from the bathroom to his easy chair in his basement apartment in Dean Estates Sunday afternoon, water began pooling around his legs. Amitrano, who uses a wheelchair and has difficulty walking, was able to reach his chair, but only just.

“Two seconds later, I was upside down in the chair,” he said.

His wife, Carol Amitrano, was taking chicken fingers out of the air fryer and checking the oven when the front of the dishwasher exploded. Water flowed into the apartment. Ralph Amitrano’s sister was dragged underwater by the kitchen table, and is now floating in the rapidly filling apartment.

Within just 10 minutes of the first appearance of the flood, the space was filled with water, and Ralph Amitrano was in danger of drowning in his own apartment.

Firefighters descended the six steps leading to the basement apartment and waded through the water to pull Ralph Amitrano to safety on the second floor, where his head was submerged several times.

“He was bobbing up and down,” neighbor Wayne Walker said.

Firefighters say if the flooding had occurred at night, people would have drowned

The Amitranos’ near-death experience during the catastrophic flooding at the Dean Estates apartment complex in Cranston was not unique, with several people describing nearly drowning in their own apartments Sunday.

Fire Chief James Warren said he was lucky the flash floods happened Sunday afternoon. If this had happened 12 hours later, at 1 a.m., many people might have drowned in their bedrooms, with the small amount of time they had between being alerted to the rising water and the water being too deep for them to escape.

Walker said he went out for 30 minutes, and when he returned, his apartment was flooded almost to the ceiling, covering the electrical panel. Inside the flooded apartment were his two little dogs, Gizmo and Gabby.

Later in the day, the firefighter came out checking his apartment to see if he could be saved, his head hung low. Before the firefighter could say a word, Walker knew his dogs were dead and began crying.

Firefighters rescued two cats from the building, although two other cats were missing.

Condemning construction as dangerous

Warren ordered the apartment building to be condemned, as many parts of the first floor were completely missing. During a meeting with residents Monday evening, Warren said those living on the second and third floors would be allowed to try to get medications or personal belongings on Tuesday and beyond, with an escort.

All 24 units in the building are uninhabitable, and families now need to find new places to live, in a market where prices are rising and supply, if any, is scarce.

In the past, apartment complexes have had agreements with each other to rehouse tenants in empty apartments, Warren said. Since the pandemic, all of these additional units have been rented and there are few, if any, left in the system.

Residents of the buildings criticized the owners and managers of the new buildings at the meeting, denouncing that they would allow people to live in apartments with a history of flooding.

Apartment managers, represented by Justin Fishman, said they cut $500 checks to everyone in the condemned buildings and refunded their September rent and security deposits. He suggested residents request a special rate from Econo Lodge if they need a place to stay.

Suzanne Renone recently sold her house and was trying to find a place to move to, but the waiting list for every apartment she could find was at least a year long. She and her husband, Daniele Renone, were thrilled when a condo opened in Dean Estates. At the time, she didn’t know why — the previous tenant had walked out on eight months of a year’s lease after his apartment flooded.

On Sunday, they were sitting on the couch, getting ready to watch football when water started pouring from the closet.

Standing in a hallway at the Cranston Police Department after the meeting, Susan Renone opened a video she took on her phone. The floods were recorded as they occurred. In the video, the toilets started overflowing, and water was pouring out of the walls. Within 12 minutes, they were chest-deep in water, trying to escape the apartment.

“A firefighter grabbed my arm,” Susan Renone said. “Without him, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

Who should pay for the damages?

Since the first major flood at the Dean Estate apartment complex in 2013, the city, state and former owner of the apartment complex have been engaged in litigation over the past decade over who should pay damages.

Residents who attended the meeting described that the apartments were repeatedly flooded with water. The last flood was so bad that it made the news in 2018.

Oaklawn Street is a state road, so state road drainage is the state’s responsibility, while Cranston is responsible for the primary sewer system and the apartment complex has its own internal drainage.

DOT Director Peter Alviti “is on record as noting that the building was built below ground level, making it vulnerable to flooding, which has occurred several times since its construction,” DOT spokesman Charles St. Martin wrote in an email.

2013 floods: The Dean Estates flash flood smashed first floor doors and windows and sent a river of dirty water through some apartments

When asked what the state has done in the 10 years since the apartments were flooded in 2013, St. Martin had no comment.

The apartment building flooding was a symptom of broader stormwater drainage problems the Department of Transportation is addressing, including $140 million in improvements over the past seven years, Martin wrote. However, this number does not indicate how much or how little work has been done to fix the sewer problems on Oaklawn Street.

Flash flood events overwhelm drainage systems, as pipes are designed to sizes smaller than the new normal.

“We will replace the drains as quickly as we can — it took decades of neglect to get here, and it will take decades to remedy this,” St. Martin wrote.

Mayor Ken Hopkins said weeks before the near-fatal floods, he met with state leaders to talk about flooding issues in Cranston, and the city is trying to tap federal funding to mitigate some of the stormwater issues, including dredging the Pawtuxet River to increase its capacity and buying homes in the floodplain.

AG opposes taking lawsuit over 2013 floods to trial

The lawsuit, filed by Dean Estates, LLC, against the city and where the state was also filed, could get a trial date 10 years after the flood. The state Attorney General’s Office, which is defending the Department of Transportation, asked in court documents that the judge not set a trial date because they had not interviewed all witnesses.

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Contact Wheeler Cowperthwaite at wcowperthwaite@providencejournal.com or follow him on Twitter @wheelerreporter.

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