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No Power, No Water, An Angry Potomac

Isabel Blows Through Town in a Hurry

Despite all the media attention she got, Hurricane Isabel impressed some Dranesville District residents as just another summer windstorm.

Most residents lost electrical power for lights, computers and in Great Falls, the pumps for their fresh-water wells.

But many were still without power at press time, with no one to tell them when they would get it back, making them grouchy and sometimes critical of public utility workers.

“They have power in their minds, but not in their electric lines,” said Dranesville District Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn.

“A lot of them are still out, with no hope in sight. We have people with no wells, and no septic [tanks working]. It is just not pretty,” Mendelsohn said.

He said his staff faxed a list to Dominion Virginia Power, naming the areas that are still missing power, but haven’t gotten any explanation about when they’ll get it back.

“I think most of these people will have it by the end of the week, but I don’t know if that is acceptable,” Mendelsohn said.

“The end of the week? It seems the last 16,000 [customers] are taking longer than the first hundred thousand. The fact they won’t give you any information makes it even worse. People could make plans if they had some idea.”

As for the water outage, Mendelsohn said, “I think now that this whole thing is over, we are going to have to look at the way we are doing this. I understand the likelihood of losing all four [water sources] at once was not great, and I understand the cost of the backup power supply, but there has to be a better answer than ‘sorry, that is the best we can do,’” he said.

Pamela Danner of McLean, Dranesville’s representative to the Fairfax County Water Authority, was not available for comment at press time, but Mendelsohn said people in Dranesville District don’t like the idea of overhead water towers that would enhance the supply and regulate water pressure.

Mendelsohn said Franklin Park will get an unscheduled trash pickup on Wednesday that he arranged “after a lot of arm-twisting, especially for a lame duck,” having told county trash officials that his constituents “don’t have power, they have rancid food, and you aren’t going to pick up their trash?” he said.

“That was like pulling teeth,” Mendelsohn said. “They are so focused on the flooding in Alexandria that they have totally lost sight of the rest of the county.”

BOTTLED WATER and a generator helped firefighters deal with the crisis in Great Falls, where most restaurants were closed on Friday because they were warned by the county health department not to rely on the water supply.

“Great Falls was desolate," said Ginny Sinclair, the owner of Grandmother’s Back Room at Village Centre. “Even the 7-Eleven was closed.”

But Sinclair’s shop was open. She used the down time to unpack boxes and get her stock ready for the winter selling months, she said, but she didn’t lack for customers.

“When people need to go to baby showers, they need a present,” she said. “The babies keep right on coming.”

At press time, she still was without phone service at her store, but “I’m taking charges on good faith that they’re going to be approved,” she said. Both the Old Brogue and The Tavern Restaurants managed to stay open and serve hot meals through the weekend, which Sinclair called “the saviour of mankind." Everybody I knew was [at the Brogue], she said.”

AT GREAT FALLS NATIONAL PARK, damage was limited to downed trees that miraculously missed all the park’s treasured cultural resources – the canal that George Washington helped build, or the ruins of Matildaville, said Park Manager Walter E. McDowney.

“We had worse damage Monday night” than over the weekend, he said. McDowney said. “The road at Mine Run got washed out.

“I guess Hurricane Isabel must have left a lot of water in the canal,” he said. “The water that came off the roof of the building came into our courtyard, and could not get into the drain. So we had about an inch of water on the floor in the rangers’ office [Tuesday morning],” he said.

The altitude in Mather Gorge, 110 feet above sea level at the top of the Great Falls of the Potomac, drops to 70 below the gorge, a distance of about one and one-fourth miles.

When the Potomac floods, water rushes through with a powerful force that makes it appear to churn and boil below the sheer rock walls of the gorge. The current creates eddies and circular patterns that were marked by flotsam and tree trunks over the weekend.

“It’s impressive. It’s magnificent. It’s such a powerful force,” said Gus Anderson, a kayaker from McLean who brought his daughter, Ashley, to see the river on Sunday.

He pointed to the smooth surges of water continually surfacing in an area called Fisherman’s Eddy. “Those ‘boils’ are where it’s coming back to the surface.”

One man was rescued by a kayaker, who himself had to be plucked from a river island by Montgomery County authorities after he had picked up the unidentified man. He was reportedly attempting to swim across the river to impress the young women he was with, according to a firefighter in Great Falls who is trained in swift-water rescue.

But there were no reported injuries or deaths, and property damage was more annoying than it was harmful, according to most Great Falls residents.

“I didn’t see a whole lot that was terribly interesting,” said Rick Stout, who rode his bicycle to Great Falls National Park on Friday afternoon. “I went down thinking I was going to salvage the papaws before they got knocked out, but I didn’t want to ride past all the red tape.

“There were a couple of trees down at Great Falls Park, as you might expect,” he said, but “overall, it was pretty tame. There was less damage than I expected.

“We’ve had summer thunderstorms with higher winds than we got right here. It was certainly nothing very dramatic in this neighborhood.”

“It was a real non-event,” said Joan Bliss, who lives near the Potomac River and saw the river completely fill Mather Gorge during a flood in early 1996. “We’ve had much worse storms here.”

Thanks to that experience, Bliss said she filled the family’s hot tub with water to carry them through several days when she knew their septic system would not be working. Like most families in Great Falls, where there is no public water supply, the Bliss family relies on a well that is driven by a pump and powered by electricity. Their power was still out on Monday night, four days after the storm.

The family relied on an $800 generator to keep their refrigerator, microwave and television set going, she said — and the coffee pot.

“Everybody is getting cranky,” Bliss said. “But I feel really lucky. It could be a lot worse. I just try to keep a sense of humor about it.”

A Fairfax County police officer blocked Leigh Mill Road on Friday, where a tree had fallen across it and downed the power lines.

A Virginia Dominion Power truck was there to remove the tree with a chain saw and replace the lines.

The Potomac crested just after noon on Sunday at 11.5 feet above flood stage at Little Falls, three days after the effects of the hurricane were first felt.