PROVIDENCE — The forecast looked grim: Hurricane Henri was expected to make a direct hit on the smallest state. Businesses in shore towns boarded up their windows. Boat owners in marinas along the coast secured their vessels. Surfers in Narragansett headed out to play on the increasingly rough waves.
As Henri drew closer, most flights in and out of T.F. Green Airport had long been cancelled. The tainter gates for the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier — about a mile from downtown Providence — rumbled to a close, protecting the city from potential surges and flooding. Bridges were closed to traffic because of high winds. Emergency shelters were opened. And, in a sure sign that things were serious, both of the state’s casinos, normally open around the clock, shut their doors at 4 a.m.
By the time Henri made landfall in Westerly as a tropical storm around 12:15 p.m., Rhode Island residents had braced themselves for the worst.
But the worst never came.
In Providence, strong winds whipped through the city but rain remained light throughout the day. A Providence police detail guarded a gate from the hurricane barrier on the street side, and few locals gathered to view the slow tides. Residents walked to India Point Park, where the Seastreak Ferry to Newport and Bristol was out of service for the day. Fishermen stood along docks, casting lines into the Green Jacked Shoal, a 33-acre shoal and ship graveyard between East Providence and Providence.
It was worse along the coastline, where Henri raked the historic villages of Point Judith, Galilee, and Narragansett, snapping trees in half and littering branches over the roadway. A few people made their way on foot to local beaches and walked around in the tropical storm-force winds, even though police closed roads and beach parking lots to vehicles. Narragansett Town Beach was completely coated in foamy white surf.
Crowds milled around The Coast Guard House, a 1940s seafood restaurant and the location of an 1800s US Life Saving Service, now called the US Coast Guard. It was heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy but the solid granite building was rebuilt.
Mary Phelan and her daughter, Dorothy Phelan, came down to the Coast Guard House because they felt it was safer than being inside their home, surrounded by bending trees.
“Well, the trees were falling down so close to our house we figured it was safer to be outside than under the trees,” Mary Phelan said.
“It’s really frothy, and there’s seafoam all over the road and we’re getting sprayed in the face with all the foam,” her daughter added.
They said they were relieved that Henri didn’t reach Sandy intensity. Dorothy Phelan described how Hurricane Sandy had pulled boulders from underneath seaside businesses and left them on top of the buildings.
The damage after Henri was far less severe. Salty Landing at Salty Brine State Beach lost some shingles, while Route 108 from Point Judith to Narragansett and Route 1 to North Kingston was covered in fallen tree branches and even a few full-sized trees. Though some homes were hit by falling trees, most appeared unharmed.
Newport also appeared to escape most of Henri’s wrath. By about 2 p.m., people were out walking, looking for open restaurants. Some residents were outside raking up smaller branches and leaves. The city that had been ravaged by Sandy was mostly untouched by Henri.
Westerly issued a local disaster declaration and shut down local roads as the storm approached. The seaside town had issued a voluntary evacuation in parts of the Misquamicut area, and National Grid shut off gas service for 76 customers as a precaution in flood-prone areas.
Atlantic Avenue was flooded and unpassable at 10:30 a.m., Police Chief Shawn Lacey said.
“Anybody found in the beach area is being asked to leave immediately,” Lacey said. “We do not want any traffic in the beach.”
But as Henri banked into Connecticut and then hooked up into Massachusetts, it became clear that Westerly had been spared. Roads that had been closed just hours earlier were mostly clear by midafternoon, and people were out and about, even pushing toddlers in strollers through the huge puddles left behind by the storm.
On Block Island, “The wind’s really starting to whip,” said State Representative Blake Filippi, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, in a phone interview at about 10:40 a.m. “It’s this howl, this constant vibration in the air from the sustained wind. It’s kind of indescribable vibration.” Some trees were down and there seemed to be some beach erosion, Filippi said.
But 20 minutes later, it was perfectly serene, Filippi said. No wind at all, and it looked like the sun was trying to peek out over his family’s farm.
“I’m at the farm, and cows are out eating, birds are flying around and chirping, the sun is trying to break through, and there are thousands and thousands of dragonflies as far as you can see,” Filippi said, while in the eye of the storm. “It’s so cool.”
In Narragansett, surfers were out of the water, and the town reported a few busy hours with high winds but no injuries or other major issues to contend with. Town Manager James Tierney said the town had downed lines, with some trees falling down, including one on his own house.
“We are currently assessing and cleaning up,” Tierney said in an e-mail.
In Providence, the gates to the hurricane barrier were lifted by 4 p.m., when the US Army Corps of Engineers determined the threat of storm surge flooding was gone. Kayakers were seen paddling through.
Tens of thousands of homes and businesses remained without power and full restoration could take days, but the state largely avoided the worst-case scenarios, officials said. National Grid said later Sunday that it expected to have the vast majority of its homes and businesses restored by midweek. A quick restoration is especially important, because weather forecasts call for hot days ahead, with highs potentially reaching the 90s by Tuesday.
But the storm surge was not as high as initially feared, said Marc Pappas, director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency. And the height of the storm did not coincide with high tide.
As of early Sunday evening, no injuries had been reported. The state’s two casinos will reopen Monday morning, Governor Dan McKee said in an afternoon press conference.
“I think we got a little lucky,” Pappas said. “We dodged a bullet.”
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