WEST WARWICK, R.I. — Flooding on a scale rarely seen in New England forced hundreds of people from their homes Wednesday, overwhelmed sewage systems to the point that families were asked to stop flushing toilets, and washed out bridges and highways from Maine to Connecticut.

Hardest hit by three days of record-breaking rain was Rhode Island, where the worst flooding in 200 years could persist for several more days and permanently close businesses already struggling in the weak economy.

“I think we’re all done,” said Angelo Padula Jr., a West Warwick town councilman whose family owns a 100-year-old auto-restoration shop. The shop and 260 cars stood in 10 feet of water from the Pawtuxet River.

Padula said officials told him they believe his shop and about 40 surrounding businesses would have to be condemned, as will several blocks of homes.

“We were wiped right out,” said Padula, whose 86-year-old father was hospitalized after having a heart attack during Tuesday night’s flooding. “You’re talking millions and millions of dollars in these businesses. Now I know how the people in New Orleans felt” after Hurricane Katrina.

The rain subsided to a drizzle Wednesday, then finally stopped, and the floodwaters began to recede. But authorities across New England warned that much of the water could linger for days. The latest flooding was far worse than an inundation earlier this month in the same areas.

Stonington, Conn., a coastal town on the Rhode Island border, was largely cut off as two of its three bridges went out. A bridge also gave way in Freetown, Mass., isolating about 1,000 residents. In Coventry, R.I., a two-lane bridge threatened to collapse after its abutments washed out.

A stretch of Interstate 95, the main route linking Boston to New York, was closed in Rhode Island and could remain so at least through today.

Amtrak suspended some trains in the area because of water over the tracks. It said its Acela Express service between New Haven, Conn., and Boston and its Northeast regional service between New York and Boston would be suspended into this morning.

In Rhode Island, rescues continued for a third day along the Pawtuxet River, which flooded several blocks past its banks in many spots. The river crested Wednesday morning at 20.79 feet, nearly 6 feet over the previous record — set only two weeks ago — and almost 12 feet above its ordinary level of 9 feet.

The river is expected to return to its banks by Saturday, officials said.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano planned to travel to Rhode Island on Friday to assess damage caused by flooding, a DHS official said Wednesday evening on condition of anonymity because her trip hadn’t been formally announced.

An aerial tour of the state taken by The Associated Press revealed the sweep of the damage.

Water flowed like a torrent around the Warwick Mall, with rapids approaching the front doors of a Macy’s and an Old Navy store and putting a movie theater underwater. Cars were submerged up to their roofs. Oil slicks floated on top of muddy water through neighborhoods.

Although many parts of the state appeared unaffected, roads in other areas were broken up, ball fields were underwater, and homes and businesses were flooded.

The heavy rain is the latest setback to Rhode Island, which has struggled for months with an unemployment rate nearing 13 percent — about 3 percentage points higher than the national average. Some of the areas worst hit were business districts, including the area around the Warwick Mall, one of the state’s major shopping areas.

Amy Kempe, a spokeswoman for Gov. Don Carcieri, said it was too soon to know the economic impact of the latest round of flooding to the state, which has a $220 million budget deficit.

Also threatened was West Warwick, a town designated a “distressed community” by the state because of its many low-income residents and heavy tax burden. The town was the site in 2003 of one of the nation’s deadliest nightclub fires.


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