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Isabel Dominates News

2003 — Looking Back

Local elections and weather events dominated the local scene in 2003. Frequent snow storms in the beginning of the year caused so many snow days that Fairfax Country Public Schools Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech asked the State of Virginia to waive some of those days so that school could end as scheduled.

While the weather is mild as of this writing, the beginning of this winter has already brought forth two storms, albeit this area got more slush than snow causing schools to only be delayed instead of closed.

That was not the case when Hurricane Isabel blew through. She wreaked so much havoc that schools were closed for two days—the first day while waiting for her to come and the second day dealing with the cleanup.

Isabel hit in the early hours of September 18. The Belle View and New Alexandria were especially hit hard. Homes and condominiums were flooded, leaving many people homeless or with costly repairs. Fire and police officials were kept busy providing emergency evacuation and protection. Emergency shelters were set up at the local schools, while a command center with all the appropriate services was established at the Mount Vernon RECenter. Town meetings were held with representatives from the county, fire and police departments, FEMA, SBA and others.

Board members from Belle View Condominiums worked day and night to get the electricity, gas and heat turned on for owners. While there was some reserve money, a loan had to be approved by owners to provide for the repairs, some of which are still ongoing. The owners of the basement apartments, who hoped to return to their units by Christmas, are still waiting for renovations to be completed.

In addition to the homeowners, store owners in the Belle Haven Shopping Center suffered some damage as well; they have all reopened except for Dishes of India, which is scheduled to open soon. Despite the extensive damage suffered by Belle Haven Marina, owner George Stevens persevered and was back in operation within a few months.

THE DEVASTATION BROUGHT by Hurricane Isabel will be felt for years to come and assessments about the future will be made. Donald Demetrius, an engineer with the stormwater planning division, said that they have been asked by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to study the current stormwater management setup and present an initial plan for changes.

The current 7 1/2 -foot tide gate wasn't enough to protect against the nine-foot surge which resulted from Hurricane Isabel. The combination of the rise in water level from the tidal surge which came from south to north and the rainfall which dumped water flowing north to south was too much for the tide gate to handle. Both the east and west channels overflowed their banks, causing flooding throughout Belle View and New Alexandria.

Demetrius said that the only guarantee against all flooding would require the building of a 13-foot berm along the George Washington Parkway, something which was proposed early on, but rejected. Demetrius said that the citizens didn't like that idea, because they worried that it would adversely affect the marsh life, among other things.

Instead, the engineers did a frequency analysis and based on the frequency and level of storms from storm records, they determined that a 7 1/2-foot tide gate built along the east channel would protect against a 20-year flood. It was completed in 1997.

The original proposal called for the tide gate to be built closer to Belle View Boulevard; residents complained so it was moved to its current location. Demetrius said that it wouldn't have been much difference, but had it been built where it was planned, it would have kept some of the water from flowing where it did.

The gate in this situation is not fixed; rather it is designed to open when the water is too high on one side. It's mostly designed to prevent overflowing from high tides. If the water from high tide coming up the channel is higher than 7 1/2 feet, the gate opens to let some of the water to continue upstream. The channel was dredged enough that it can manage the extra water flow—in normal situations.

There are currently two channels that run through the area; the east channel runs through the lower part of New Alexandria into Belle View; the west channel is in the upper end of New Alexandria. In 1991, a pump house was built on the west channel behind Belle View Shopping Center to alleviate the more constant problem of rainwater flooding the upper part of New Alexandria. This colonial brick structure blends in so well that most people don't even realize that it's there. Yet, without it, the northwest quadrant of New Alexandria, which is very low, would see flooding much more often.

The pump house is designed such that when the rainwater in the canal leading to the pump house gets too high, a series of four machines inside pump the water out to the river. To protect from high tides, there is also a permanent tide gate that doesn't let the water coming up the channel from high tides pass the pump house.

So, the area wasn't totally unprepared; it just wasn't quite enough for what Isabel brought—and if and when it will happen again. It's in the hands of the planners to determine what can be done to prevent future flooding in Belle View and New Alexandria.

In addition to Hurricane Isabel, wind gusts in both October and November caused as much or more damage as the hurricane, including loss of power and downed trees.

POLITICIANS GEARING UP FOR the local elections suspended campaigning during the hurricane to help their constituents, but geared back up in the final weeks. All but one politician had contested races, including Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerald Hyland (D). He won the race against Republican Purvis Dawson. Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman was unopposed. State Senator Linda "Toddy" Puller (D-36), who was challenged by Fairfax County School Board Member Chris Braunlich, was re-elected, as was Delegate Kristen J. Amundson (D-44), opposed by David Kennedy. In Lee District, Brad Center defeated Terrie Dacales for a School Board seat. Vying for the spot in the 43rd District were Incumbent Tom Bolvin and challenger Mark Sickles; Sickles won in that race. In the 45th District, Jay Test lost to incumbent Delegate Marian Van Landingham.

Isis Castro, chairman of the Fairfax County School Board, surprised everybody earlier in the year when she withdrew her bid for re-election. This cleared the way for a match between Dan Storck and Marsha Paul; the former emerging victorious. Five other new board members were elected in the county.

In addition to the School Board changes, Fairfax County Public Schools is still recovering from several administrative changes. Last month, Fairfax County School Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech announced that he will be resigning as of March. This comes on the heels of the departure of long-time Deputy Superintendent Alan Leis, who left in April to head a school district in suburban Chicago. 'Chief Financial Officer Charles Woodruff retired and went to work at Stafford County schools, and in October, Chief Academic Officer Nancy Sprague, died in her sleep from undetected heart problems.

Closer to home, new principals took the helm of local schools. James Dallas was hired as principal at Hybla Valley Elementary School; Daria Groover at Waynewood Elementary and Joanne Jackson at Bucknell Elementary School.

Eric Brent left his position as assistant principal at Mount Vernon High School to become principal of West Potomac. This was after Henry R. Johnson, Jr. left to set up Northwood High School, a new school opening in Montgomery County in 2004. Not long after Brent took over, he had to deal with the tragedy of two of West Potomac's students being named as suspects in the tragic death of T.C. Williams High School student Schuyler Jones.

On the middle school level, Walt Whitman Middle School moved forward with their pre-IB program and Carl Sandburg students continued to make great achievements.

CAPTAIN LARRY MOSER and his officers were busy not only during the hurricane, but throughout the year as well. Early on, they dealt with "Vernon Doe," the baby whose body was found at Mount Vernon Country Club. The mother was never found, but a funeral service was provided by the officers and the community at St. James Episcopal Church.

Vandalism and other incidents continue to occur in local neighborhoods. There have been numerous bank robberies in the area, some of which still remain to be solved. The new police station is now complete and the officers are enjoying their new facilities.

National events, like the war in Iraq and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, hit close to home. Laurel Clark, one of the astronauts killed, was the sister-in-law of Meg Clark, a kindergarten teacher at Waynewood Elementary School. Services were held at Aldersgate Methodist Church.

Servicemen from this area were honored with a column celebrating their role in defending our country. Some of those men and women did not make it home. The Mount Vernon community grieved for two of their own: Jim Blankenbecler and Sharon Swartworth.

The community grieved for Jack Knowles, well known for his advocacy of the educational system; he died at a Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) Budget Task Force Meeting in the fall. Also remembered was long-time Belle Haven Country Club employee, Bertha Champagne, who was killed in a car accident. Car accidents claimed the lives of several other area residents, including Okyere Adarkwah, who was killed along with one of his passengers on Route 1.

CULTURE LOVERS in Alexandria and Mount Vernon have had plenty of choices from local arts, theater and music groups. The Mount Vernon Orchestra and Alexandria Symphony Orchestras continue to reach new heights with the selections they present during their monthly concerts. Other local music groups put on some nice performances as well. [See related story in this issue]. Art continues to thrive with constantly changing exhibits at local art galleries.

Fund-raisers by schools, churches and civic groups continue to provide not only a source of entertainment, but also a source of revenue in the form of bazaars, dances, galas, auctions and shows. Mount Vernon RECenter passed a milestone when they celebrated their 25th anniversary earlier in the year.