Seven and a half feet wasn't quite enough to hold back the wrath of Hurricane Isabel. Sometime between 2 and 4 a.m. Thursday, a surge of water reaching 9 1/2 feet swept over the Belle View dike and into the neighborhood of Mount Vernon called New Alexandria. Officials who had received forecasts of these surges had called for a mandatory evacuation of more than 2,000 residents Thursday evening.
Many complied with the evacuation order; some did not. About 40 people who chose not to evacuate that evening called for help as the water started to come into their houses. Lt. James Istvan with the Fairfax County Fire Department said that they evacuated some people between 4 and 7 a.m. on Friday; the crew remained in Belle View throughout the morning as the water receded, in case somebody needed them. Technician Kyle Anderson manned one of the four rescue boats that were sent out to rescue people.
"They were supposed to leave yesterday, but didn't. They called [9-11] when the water got high," he said. "Others saw us and called out that they needed help, too. We pulled the boats right up to the door; a couple of people were on the roofs. Most people were pretty calm, just a little scared. The water came up pretty quickly."
How quickly the water rose was a thought that was repeated again and again by longtime residents who couldn't believe their eyes, like Frank and Marie-Therese Wood, 13-year residents of River Towers Condominiums. They stayed at the Comfort Inn in Springfield Thursday night and were planning to stay there again the following evening. They hadn't been back to their home as of Friday morning, but they weren't too concerned because somebody told them that the condo was "high and dry." This was especially comforting, since the Woods not only live at River Towers but have a business unit there as well. "They knocked on all our doors and told us they wanted everybody to leave," said Frank Wood. "We've never seen anything like this, but it could be a lot worse."
Lew and Gerry Pratsch live in nearby Belle Haven and were checking out the damage at the Belle View Shopping Center. "I haven't seen anything like this since '76," said Lew Pratsch. Their power had gone off Thursday afternoon, which was earlier than most. They had been talking to the owners of Titan Moving & Storage, a company that keeps its trucks at Belle View Shopping Center, and said that they were bringing stuff out [of the water]. He said that they didn't feel that they received sufficient warning.
HOLLY MAHLA DID not evacuate. She chose to stay in her boyfriend's first-floor Belle View Condominium's unit overnight.
"A woman on the third floor told me that she had been through floods and was going to stay. I didn't evacuate because I wanted to see what happened and take pictures," said Mahla, who set her alarm for 5 a.m.
When she awoke and looked out the window, she said that the water covered the street and was over the bushes.
"I wondered how much higher it was going to get," said Mahla. But that was pretty much the worst of it. It ended as quickly as it came; it just left behind a trail of unimaginable destruction. The unit Mahla was in didn't suffer too much damage; power was never lost and phones went out for only an hour. The most damage done was to items left in the basement storage units, which were by then completely under water.
Outside, there was considerable damage. When Mahla went into the parking lot behind her unit, she realized that the industrial-size Dumpster that used to be there had vanished, washed away by the surge of water.
ALL OF THE CARS that were in the storm's path were now filled with almost a foot of water. Hoods and trunks were left open in hopes that the sun would start to dry them out. Some of the cars were actually lifted from their parking spots and left on the curb. Mahla's boyfriend's car was one of the damaged ones. She hadn't moved it because she didn't know where to put it.
"I don't think I'm going to get this started anytime soon," said Mahla.
Heidi Burkhardt's car was in one of the condo's parking lots and fared even worse. Some friends helped to move it onto the street, where she was trying to bail it out.
"I evacuated but never thought about my car," she said.
Lisa and Tim Driscoll's car was ruined. As he said, "The car was trashed."
The Driscolls live down the street from Mahla, and Tim said, "When we looked out the door at 4:30 [a.m.], it was like a river, the water was a foot up this tree."
Lisa Driscoll added, "When we opened the front door this morning, we were knee-deep in water. It was pretty disturbing."
Another neighbor, Jai Yoo, evacuated, and he moved his car. That wasn't enough, though, for when he returned on Friday morning to survey the damage, he realized that the closest he could get to his basement unit was by looking in the kitchen window. There he saw boxes of food floating around. The water was almost 3 feet deep; the water on the stairs going down to his unit was almost up to the landing.
"I didn't think it would get that high. I hope I have flood insurance," he said. He was staying with friends and waiting to hear from his landlord what he should do next.
RESIDENTS COMING back to their units had to show identification to get past the police and sheriffs stationed at either end of Belle View Boulevard surrounding the condominiums. Pfc. Jerry Grady and Pfc. Eric Halusa were stationed at the intersection of the George Washington Parkway and Belle View Boulevard. Most of the Parkway was closed on Friday and Saturday due to flooding and downed trees. Even on Saturday morning, the area between Belle View and Hunting Towers was still littered with debris. An industrial-sized BFI blue Dumpster stood in the middle of the Parkway; like the Dumpsters at Belle View, it too, had been given a ride by Mother Nature all the way from Belle Haven Marina.
According to officials, the identification checks were done to minimize the flow of traffic in and around the area and to eliminate the threat of looting. MPO Greg Kottemann, crime prevention officer, who attended a meeting held on Saturday at Walt Whitman Middle School, indicated that there had been no looting and said, "I think it's going pretty well."
FURTHER DOWN the Parkway, U. S. Park Police Officer Danny Hoehne was on duty stopping cars at Waynewood Boulevard. The Parkway was closed between there and Mount Vernon Estates. He had gone off duty Thursday night at 10, and came back on again at 3 a.m., Friday. Hoehne said that when he came on duty, the area of the Parkway around River Farm Drive was covered with water.
"There were actually whitecaps on the water in the road. I've never seen it like that, it was amazing," said Hoehne. "I thought at first it was overreacting to evacuate people, but now I think it was a good idea."
At that point, several large trees still covered the south end of the Parkway. Hoehne said that they had already cleared away more than 25 trees up and down the Parkway but still had work to do.
"I tell you, those guys do a good job," he said, speaking of the workers.
Several people were walking and riding up and down the Parkway Friday morning. Jimmy Toth and Hooff Cooksey were riding their scooters up and down. Toth said, "We can say we played chicken with a hurricane once."
Mueng Wi was walking with his wife near Cedar Knoll Restaurant and said that the power in Stratford-on-the-Potomac went out around midnight. He said that the Parkway by Cedar Knoll was covered with water.
"I never imagined we'd see the water so high," he said.
Jim and Mary Anne Cox were out as well. They were trying to get to Collingwood Library and Museum to assess the damage. Mary Anne works in the library and had heard that they had several downed trees. Jim Cox is a volunteer with the parks and was planning to go to Huntley Meadows to help there. Some trees were down, he reported, but all the big trees had been taken care of and the trail was open. The visitor center didn't have power until later.
IN THE NEIGHBORHOODS south of New Alexandria, water was not the issue. Rather, it was the lack of it. Tauxemont residents were unable to use their well water because they could not power their pumps. Tree damage for some was severe. The Cains had two trees fall on their home, while elsewhere trees fell on power lines, cars and across streets.
Geody Delano, who manages Delano Demolition, learned firsthand the meaning of demolition when a large tree fell right in front of his family’s home, taking out not only the company truck but their Ford Taurus as well. Had it not been moved to the shopping center, the family van would have also been destroyed. Geody's wife, Marfe, and daughter, Allie, spent much of the morning talking to neighbors as they came by to view the damage and declare them "the winners."