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One Street — Two Tales

Isabel's fury hit just about everyone.

As with most natural disasters, the aftermath is a study in stark contrasts. Hurricane Isabel was no exception.

Two high-end residential communities in Old Town Alexandria separated by the southernmost block of South Union Street are perfect examples. The residents of one suffered virtually no damage; those in the other are faced with significant losses.

The two townhome communities are Fords Landing and Backyard Boats, bounded by Franklin, South Union and Potomac streets.

One of the features of the Backyard Boats development is its common, underground garage area, which gives residents real garages rather than just a lined-off space on a concrete floor. Each has a two-car garage leading into a basement-level living area.

The garages are accessed by a common extra-large-door entrance on the South Union Street side of the development. This leads down to the one-story common garage level.

As the Potomac River tidal surge expanded early Friday, the water rushed through Windmill Hill Park Dog Park and up the bike/walking path, which runs along the southern edge of Fords Landing, and cascaded into the garage level of Backyard Boats. There, it swallowed all vehicles, storage items and the living quarters just beyond the garage walls on the basement level.

"It was all under water. They even pulled big fish out of here during the pumping operation," said Mike Garten, whose home is on the Potomac Street side of the complex. He was standing next to his relatively new, now water-logged, Lexus, surrounded by as-yet-unpacked family items.

"See that refrigerator standing against the wall?" he said as he pointed to the upright refrigerator/freezer. "That was on the hood of the Lexus with the doors wide open. And a lot of these boxes were on the top of the car."

Garten just moved into his home in July. He had made a career transfer here from Arizona. "When we moved in, we were told that those on the Potomac Street side of the development didn't need flood insurance. So hardly anyone on this side has it. The repairs are all going to come right out of my pocket," he said.

ALTHOUGH THE PRIMARY floors of the homes on the Potomac Street side of the complex are somewhat higher than those on the Union Street side, due to the topography, the garage level is the same for all. It is approximately one story below ground.

"Coming from Arizona, why would I think about flooding? But I'm originally from Minnesota, so I should have thought," he said. "The lower level was completely under water, just about to the ceiling. My son's bed and TV were floating. It was a surreal scene. This was like ‘The Perfect Storm.’"

Pon MacShane, who lives across Potomac Street from the Backyard Boats development, said, "We didn't get any damage at all." Those homes do not have garages. Cars are parked on parking spaces incorporated as part of the front lot at street level.

All damage in Backyard Boats was confined to the basement/garage level. The living portion of that level contains at least one room and a bath in most of the residences.

In one garage was an SUV, and in the next was a Porsche, and in the next a Mercedes. All had been covered with river water and debris.

EARLY SATURDAY afternoon, Garten and others gathered on Potomac Street to discuss cleanup procedures and costs with Greg Gandee, vice president, Servicemaster of Alexandria. He estimated the cost to each residence at between $2,000 and $3,000. That did not include drying "which is done by dehumidification and negative air machines," according to Gandee.

"Our big concern now is bacteria and viruses," he said. "By Monday we are going to start having a problem with mold. We are working hard to get this stuff out of here before mold starts to form."

Gandee explained, "You can remove mold, but that isn't always the wise thing to do. Some mold becomes toxic when it is removed. The best thing is to get rid of any and all breeding places for mold before it starts. Anything porous has to be removed immediately."

The water level had reached to within less than a foot of the garage-level ceiling, according to several residents. By early Saturday afternoon the hoses were still spewing brown, rancid river water into the gutter on South Union Street from several homes.

ON THE OTHER side of that street are the even higher-priced homes of Fords Landing. The only evidence of hurricane Isabel there were some wet door mats from the rain and some driftwood on the promenade area at the river's edge.

"We became an island. The water came up the bike path and across the dog park, but it never touched us. It was all around us," said longtime resident Iris Straus.

"Just last weekend we had a neighborhood cleanup. And the storm didn't undo any of our work except down on the promenade. The water came up to the last step before the street level and stopped," she said.

Along the promenade area there is an open-topped pavilion with benches and lights encased in concrete that come on at night to warn of the river's edge. All of this area was under water.

"When the lights came on under the water it was fascinating. It reminded me of the Titanic. We all came out to see it. But, on reflection, that probably wasn't very smart," Straus admitted.

Ford's Landing's riverfront residences all have patios behind stone walls that are well above the promenade area. "The water came to within about a foot of the top of the wall but didn't go over except for the occasional wave that splashed water onto the patios," she said.

"The only problem we have had is that they shut off the gas, and so we can't boil the water because the stoves are gas-fired. And we don't have any hot water, either. But they did give us warning so we could get a hot shower before it was turned off," Straus said."

For the residents of the 900 block of South Lee Street in Yates Gardens, the tidal surge brought the water level to just above the knees. It hit its peak about 3:45 a.m., Friday.

There was no damage to any of the homes, although three cars parked in the path of the rising water did suffer some damage when the water inside the vehicles covered the lower portion of the seats. There was damage to a home in the 900 block of South Fairfax Street due to a large tree that fell onto its roof.

RISING FROM Jones Point Road, the water finally stopped its advance at the intersection of Green and South Lee streets. No flood conditions had reached that point since Hurricane Agnes in June 1972, longtime residents, who lived in the area at that time, confirmed. Debris of driftwood, trash cans and other items left a ground-level water line on the south side of the intersection.

The difference between the two storms, Agnes and Isabel, was the cause of the flooding. Agnes' waters came from extended rainfall over several days. Isabel's devastation was caused more by a tidal surge due to winds from the south, triggered by of the storm's circulation pattern, according to weather analysts.