Is there a disaster waiting to happen in one of Alexandria's largest highrise residential complexes? Several long-time tenants think so.
When a major storm hit the Washington region July 22, a transformer at Southern Towers on Seminary Road was hit. Power was lost for several hours. But, that's to be expected under such circumstances. What's not to be expected is that there was no emergency backup power. Hallways went dark. Stairwells went dark. Elevators went dark. Residents were on their own, according to two who live there.
"I'm from New York City and have been through two blackouts up there. But, we had emergency plans in place. Southern Towers has had constant problems with electricity," said resident Ann Marie Whitaker.
"The lights went out about 10 p.m. There was no emergency lighting in the hallways or the stairwells. And, the elevators were also dark. The people at the front desk were telling people to use the elevators," she said.
Whitaker lives on the 14th floor of the Ashlawn Building, 4901 Seminary Road. She insists she has complained about the lack of emergency lighting for several years with no success. Upon inspection, there are no emergency light units in either the stairwells or hallways, only the regular lighting fixtures.
The buildings are supported by emergency generators but, according to Arthur Dahlberg, director, Alexandria Code Enforcement, there was trouble with the generator motor making it inoperative. "The Fire Department responded to a call that people were trapped in the elevator of the Ashlawn Building," he said.
"People should be trained on how to evacuate the building safely in case of an emergency. We are close enough to D.C. and the Pentagon that we could be a target," Whitaker said. "Every time it rains the power goes out. Lightening or no lightening. It has happened three or four times this month alone."
Whitaker acknowledged, "My main concern is that there is no expeditious way to evacuate this building. What's homeland security all about if it doesn't apply to your own home?"
HER CONCERNS WERE buttressed by S. Kathleen Keels, a sixth floor resident of the Ashlawn Building. "We've had no kind of training for tenants and no escape route planned. The hallway and stairwell lights were out all night."
Keels, who is 77, has lived in the building for many years. She moved to her sixth floor apartment within the last several years. "I would not go any higher in any of these buildings. I can walk six floors not 14 or 16. The higher you go, the less the building is maintained."
She explained, "The night of the blackout I made sure I stayed in my apartment. All the outside doors to the building were unlocked because the locks are electronic and they were off. There was no security here that night.
"But, security generally is not worth a damn around here anymore anyway. I called the Alexandria Police a month ago because of guys hanging out in the lobby drinking. We have no security here."
THE LACK OF emergency lighting is not the only potential disaster-in-waiting, according to both Keels and Whitaker. "The management is not putting any money into maintaining the buildings," Whitaker said.
"The supports on the balconies and the railing posts are rusting away," Whitaker warned, as she pointed to an exposed, rusted support sticking through the floor of the balcony above hers. She also pointed out that a pole supporting the railing along the balcony's edge was nearly rusted through.
"This balcony actually shakes when there is a storm. I put in an order two weeks ago to have it repaired but nothing has happened," she said. Whitaker has lived in her present apartment for three years.
One of the reasons Keel gave for not going higher in the building was, "When the wind blows the cement actually falls out in many areas. We used to have really great maintenance, now they don't know what they are doing and don't [seem to] care."
OUT OF FRUSTRATION Whitaker called the City Code Enforcement about the structural deficiencies. But she said, "I was told they couldn't do anything because the buildings were built before many of the things I was calling about pertaining to construction were in the code. They said they could only act when major renovations were undertaken."
Dahlberg explained that she was given incorrect information. "Anytime any citizen has any complaint we have a multitude of tools to force management to make repairs," he said. "We are well aware that there are three different buildings out there that need repairs."
He further explained, "Under our Residential Rental Permit Program we do inspections of all apartments in the city on an ongoing basis. If we find violations we increase our inspections at that location."
Dahlberg admitted they were aware of concrete spilling at Southern Towers. He also acknowledged Code Enforcement had found problems with the emergency generators prior to last Tuesday's storm.
According to Robert Parker, general manager, Southern Towers, "The generator was only down about 45 minutes during the storm and we had our patrol officers available with flashlights to help the residents. It only affected the Ashlawn building from 4 -4:45 p.m."
WHEN ASKED WHY flashlights were necessary at mid-afternoon, Parker could not explain. Alexandria Fire Department dispatch reports show they responded to a call of people trapped in an elevator at approximately 11 p.m. Tuesday.
Parker insisted, "They had power in the buildings all night. It was only the regular 110 volt lines in the apartments, not the heavy duty ones that run the air conditioning systems and elevators. They were out due to a failure in the power company lines coming to the buildings."
However, when Code Enforcement inspectors checked the generators on Wednesday morning, July 23, "The generators were still out," Dahlberg said. "We have more than 3,000 people living in those buildings.
"That's why we want them to call Code Enforcement. That's what we are here for. One of the benefits for city residents in this type of situation is to use Code Enforcement to work with the management of these complexes."
As for the structural concerns expressed by the residents, Parker maintained, "We inspect every apartment and each balcony twice a year. To my knowledge, at this time, we have received no repair requests from any resident."
Dahlberg acknowledged that the management company, Virginia Management, Inc., located on North Fairfax Drive in Arlington, "brought out their own engineers to conduct inspections of the property. It wasn't necessary to cite them because they came forward on their own initiative and are working with us." He did note, "Repairs are needed at three different buildings."
The inconvenience of the electrical outage resulting from the storm was not limited to Tuesday night. According to Virginia Dominion Power, "There was a failure in the feeder cable that runs in a conduit under Interstate 395." This required power to be shut off to the building again on Wednesday night, July 23, from 7 - midnight.
THE DAMAGED cable had to be removed and a new one installed. Residents were alerted in the late afternoon that power would be off again for those hours.
"A cooling center was set up at Ramsey School and all handicapped residents were brought to the ground level by elevator before the power was shut off," Dahlberg said. "We monitored it very closely.
"Fortunately, that night was relatively cool and no one opted to go to the school. Police, fire, and EMS personnel changed their response patterns to make sure things were covered."
One of the problems faced by the Power Company is that they can only respond to customer calls pertaining to power outages. In the case of Southern Towers that is the management company, not individual residents. All units are master metered, meaning that all apartments are on one unit per building, according to Virginia Dominion Power.
"But residents can always call us to let us know of a power outage as long as they give us good information as to just where they are located. That way we can trace it to the listed customer," said Mike Harner, shift manager, Operations Center, Virginia Dominion Power. He urged residents of both apartment complexes and individual residences to call 1-888-667-3000, to report outages.
"When residents of individual homes call we can respond immediately because they are the customer. We can locate them on our rosters," Harner clarified.
Whitaker attributes many of the problems at Southern Towers to "the loss of the sense of community we used to have here. But, management discourages that in every way they can now.
"There used to be community events, a newsletter, and resident meetings. There is none of that now. Even when I lived in New York there were apartment associations. Not here. Not any more."