On Sunday afternoon, residents of Arlington Terrace and Fenwick Drive in Huntington took a break from hauling ruined appliances out of stinking basements and stripping out saturated drywall in a race against mold. They left their Teflon body suits behind and dressed for a block party.
“We need to do something fun for that community,” Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerry Hyland explained. “There’s been nothing but hard work, anguish and heartache.”
The party marked the two-week anniversary of the torrential rainstorm that flooded basements and forced the County’s Building code regulators to declare 160 homes uninhabitable.
By Monday, over one hundred of those homes, more than 2/3, were sporting the green placards that signify their occupants have the county’s permission to move in again, according to Kim Bassarab, a management analyst for the county’s Permits Branch.
But Arlington Terrace resident Geoff Livingston estimates that despite the increases in green placards, only about a third of residents have returned permanently to their homes. “Come here at night, it’s a ghost town,” he said.
Replacing electrical panels and damaged wiring was the primary hurdle for most of the affected houses. David Sharp, the Permits Branch Director, said 85 percent of the homes had received permits authorizing them to have their electric systems fixed, and 80 percent of permit holders had completed repairs. Two homes that had been condemned have been re-evaluated and declared reparable.
“We’re making significant progress,” Sharp said. He said that 90 percent of homes should have permits by mid-week, and when this number is reached, the Permits Branch will consider drawing-down its workers who have been stationed at a temporary support center in the Huntington Community Center since days after the flooding.
The Red Cross closed down its emergency services operation at the community center on Thursday, July 6. It operated an emergency shelter at Edison High School for several nights after the flood, then moved to the community center and transferred shelter residents to hotels. “The immediate assistance phase has ended,” said Chris Darlington, disaster preparedness coordinator with the Fairfax-Falls Church office of the National Capitol Area Red Cross.
He said the Red Cross handled 92 cases in Huntington for a total of 292 clients. It handed out 85 debit cards with a total worth of almost $20,000 for emergency clothing and food. It paid for 55 hotel rooms for about one week at a cost of just over $32,000.
On July 6, the Red Cross handed over its clients to the Fairfax Departments of Housing and Family Services. “We want to make sure we aren’t duplicating services,” Darlington said. “If there are existing services in place with the county we would ask that people take advantage of those. If those aren’t available then we would step in.”
The rapid improvement in housing conditions is an indicator of the efforts put into flood recovery by the county and the community. “Anybody who has asked for help from the beginning has received it,” Hyland said. “I’ve never seen a more direct response [from county services].” County Fire and Rescue and police have had a constant presence in the area since the floods. The National Capital Area Red Cross and Fairfax county divisions such as the Health Department, Housing and Community Development, Stormwater Management and Land Development Services dedicated personnel to the area. The Huntington Community Center was converted to a “one-stop” resource center for people looking to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth required to secure the services and permits that would allow them to reclaim their homes and their lives.
In appreciation for the county’s effort, Mack Rhoades, president of the Huntington Community Association, wrote an open letter from the association to Hyland. “[On the Monday after the flood] it appeared that the entire county government had moved to Huntington,” the letter read. “The response from all levels of county government has been beyond expectations.”
DESPITE help and permits, the community is far from any resolution to the problems that rose with the water from Cameron Run. Hyland acknowledged that fears about future flooding infect the effort to restore homes. “There’s a certain sense of apprehension,” Hyland said. “[Residents] are almost reluctant to commit the expenses to put their houses back together without a comfort level that it won’t happen again.”
“They don’t know what the future holds unless we address why it happened and what we’re going to do about it,” Hyland added. He called this “a very legitimate reaction” to the “tsunami, a wall of water,” that overwhelmed their neighborhood.
To address this fear, the county, in partnership with Alexandria, has signed a contract with the Army Corps of Engineers to investigate what caused the flooding. At Thursday’s community meeting, Scott St. Clair, the county’s Maintenance and Stormwater Director reeled off a long list of “many different alternatives” that were under investigation for contributing to the flooding. Construction projects dominated the list, which included construction on Telegraph Road, concrete piers and floating crane barges for the Wilson Bridge Project, development along the bank of Cameron Run that confined and restricted its flow, high rises going up in the Cameron Run watershed, silting in Cameron Run and the release of overflow from Lake Barcroft upstream. St. Clair said initial reports indicate that the barge being used by the Wilson Bridge Project that broke loose and lodged against a bridge at the mouth of Cameron Run did not significantly affect flood levels.
But residents will have to wait for answers. Hyland said the contract with the Corps of Engineers established a nine-month window for the study to be completed. “I don’t understand that,” Hyland said, “because we’d talked about six [months] and we’re going to have to cut it down to less than that.”
Arlington Terrace resident Livingston, who had started a public relations company in his basement two months before it filled with water, called for the county’s investigation to be independent and open to the public. He circulated a petition that demanded an open investigation with publicly published results. “We just feel there needs to be an independent investigation,” he said. “Everybody’s got a reason to say, ‘It’s not me.’” The petition, addressed to Gov. Timothy Kaine, garnered 120 signatures at the town meeting on Thursday.
LIVINGSTON SAID county leaders had voiced their support for the proposition. He praised their initial response to the flood. “The county has done a phenomenal job. They have demonstrated they are excellent first-responders,” Livingston said. “We’re so happy they see the same way we do [on the independent study].”
But residents need more than long-term studies, said Rhoades. They want action now. He said that in the next few weeks the county could dredge the silt out of Cameron Run as a short-term effort to increase its ability to channel storm water away from the houses on its banks.
Rhoades said that many residents were also struggling with insurance reimbursements. He estimated less than half the residents had flood insurance because floodplain maps from FEMA had not been updated in time to reflect current flooding risks. Mortgage lenders require houses in FEMA floodplains to have flood insurance. And Rhoades said insurance is a problem even for some houses that did not get floodwater. Some homeowners who had sewage back-up in their homes, but no flooding, were being told by their insurance companies that because the back-ups were caused by a flood, there would be no payouts.
And despite all the progress made in issuing permits, the county’s permission to occupy a house does not make it a home again. Sharp said the building codes are only “a minimum baseline of safety … You are allowed by law to occupy the structure. That does not mean you would actually want to live in it … the code deals with life safety issues but it does not necessarily deal with comfort or aesthetics.”
At the community meeting, Thomas Crow of the county Health Department said that mold in people’s homes could also be a serious health issue in the community.
Tina Norvell, with the Department of Housing, said fifteen people have requested tenant-based rental assistance. A three month grant for people earning less than 60 percent of the county’s median income (the median income is $93,300) is to help offset the costs of rental housing.
She said 35 people have applied to the Home Improvement Loan program, which offers up to $93,000 in loans to make repairs on homes for damage that was not covered by homeowner’s or flood insurance. The loan can be deferred until the title to the house is transferred or sold.