PROVIDENCE — By the time looters toted bags of clothes and accessories out of Citi Trends on Branch Avenue, the store was already a total loss.
Assistant store manager Jackie Catu told the Globe that floodwaters may have floated a car into the store’s glass facade, shattering the windows, which allowed a torrent of floodwater several feet high to roar into the store from the parking lot.
“The merchandise was already floating around outside in the parking lot,” said Catu, who captured video of the looters during Monday night’s deluge. “So, we knew that was just going to end up being damaged out. But people coming into the store, we think it’s a little disrespectful, honestly, and that’s why we can’t have nice things in the neighborhood.”
Nearly 6 inches of rain fell across Rhode Island on Monday, leading to flooded roads, homes, and businesses.
During a Tuesday press conference held across the street from the flooded shopping plaza on Branch Avenue, Providence Mayor Brett Smiley said more than 30 people had to be helped to higher ground by the Providence Fire Department and Department of Public Works staff during the storm.
“Providence Police is actively investigating the reports of looting in the plaza just across from us,” Smiley said. “They are reviewing security footage and talking to the store owners right now.”
“There is no world in which we give a pass to anyone who acted illegally last night,” he added.
Smiley warned that the city’s storm water system was “at capacity” and another round of heavy rain is expected Wednesday because of Hurricane Lee, which could pass close to Southern New England.
While the city has trained for years to prepare for tropical storms, Smiley said, “The state of our groundwater, our reservoirs, reviews, and streams, has the potential to increase the damage or outcome even the mildest hurricane we might experience.”
“We are taking it very seriously. FEMA is in contact with the National Weather Service, the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, all the departments are working well and speaking with each other regularly,” he said. “As we get a little bit closer to the end of the week and we have higher confidence on the track of this storm, we will brief the public in much more detail.”
Around 9 p.m. Monday, Catu said she came to Citi Trends at 600 Branch Avenue to pick up materials for management. She found the parking lot flooded and saw looters leaving the store with bags of merchandise.
She said she waded into cold, murky water that was up to her chest to go inside the store.
“It was like a scene from ‘Jaws’ where you’re wondering if there’s anything under the under the water because that was my biggest concern,” said Catu. She said that water from the nearby waterway had gotten past the doorway before in three months she’d worked there, but it was never this bad.
Trish Lyons, a district manager for Citi Trends in Rhode Island, said the property manager deemed the plaza “a total loss,” and said that everyone who was working at the store on Monday is safe. Employees were evacuated from the plaza by boat.
Inside the store, Lyons said windows were blown out, and the frame and structure were damaged.
“Just to see the amount of damage that was done by water, and I think sometimes you take water for granted but water is very powerful,” Lyons said.
A wall that Citi Trends shared with Dollar General fell down and water filled both stores.
After the water receded, merchandise that had been washed off of the shelves filled the aisles. Magnetic antitheft devices were strewn around in he mud at the entrance to Citi Trends. Lyons said she has been in contact with Providence Police, who confirmed that some of the businesses in the plaza were looted.
Providence Barbell gym owner and Olympic weightlifting coach David Ethier said he experienced more than $15,000 in flood-related damage to the equipment at his gym on Branch Avenue. He was cleaning up Tuesday when the mayor set up a press conference in the courtyard, blocking some of the cleanup efforts.
Ethier said floodwater appeared to come from a nearby waterway.
“I think, calling it a river until yesterday was tongue-in-cheek,” Ethier said. “Where I grew up that would be called a creek, but last night it was a river. Last night it felt like the banks of the Mississippi.”
Ethier said he lost his Jeep, which was trapped in the flooded parking lot. Still, he said, he was taking things in stride.
“We’ve seen floods that are about 40 percent of this magnitude at least twice a year since I’ve been here,” Ethier said. “I’ve never been concerned about it. It’s easy to kind of Monday morning quarterback, right? I think, that what happened last night was incredibly unfortunate, and honestly even though my business is shut down indefinitely until I can repair everything, I’m more concerned about the people who live in the building next door who are out of their apartments until further notice. My heart goes out to them.”
Liz Tanner, CEO of Rhode Island Commerce, said resources are available for small businesses affected by the flooding. State officials have been in contact with local municipalities to assess the number of businesses that suffered losses.
During his press conference, Smiley said the city will continue to invest in outdated stormwater systems, the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, and integrating resiliency measures in all city planning to prepare for “regrettably” more storms in the future.
According to the National Weather Service, heavy rains from Hurricane Lee could bring another 1 to 4 inches of rainfall to the area.
Smiley asked residents to call 311 if they experience stormwater flooding or a problem on their streets, and to call 911 for emergencies.