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Lost in the Flood

Huntington homes evacuated after Cameron Run flash flood.

As water poured through the windows of his basement at about 11 p.m. on Sunday, Rodney Grimes pulled his two Doberman puppies from their cage and handed them up to his wife on the stairs. He turned his attention to the office where he stored the computers and camera equipment he used as a professional photographer and promoter. When he reached into the rising floodwater and received a shock, he knew it was time to leave the basement.

A few minutes later, he and his wife heard an explosion. They thought it was the furnace. They learned later it was their basement wall.

Grimes’ was one of two houses on Fenwick Drive to receive a red placard from the county’s building code inspectors. This means the building is structurally unsound. The rest of the houses on the block received yellow placards after the intense flooding on Sunday night. They are only temporarily uninhabitable.

At 3 a.m. Monday morning on nearby Arlington Terrace, rescue workers carried the four-year-old and one-year-old children of Stephanie Rush across about twenty feet of knee-high water. Rush and her eight-year-old daughter followed her. Rush’s basement had filled and an inch of floodwater covered her first floor.

Grimes and Rush were both present at a meeting in Edison High School, where an evacuation shelter had been set up by the Red Cross. Rush told county officials the clean-up of contaminated floodwater was too much for her and husband to do alone. “I need help with cleaning out my basement,” she said. She is not alone.

Homes impacted are located on Fenwick Drive, Liberty Drive, Mount Vernon Drive, and Farrington Avenue according to Lt. Raul Castillo, PIO, Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department

"We began getting calls about the overflow from Cameron Run about 8 p.m. Sunday night, " he said.

161 HOUSES in the Arlington Terrace and Fenwick Drive areas have been rendered uninhabitable by flooding that occurred Sunday night and early Monday morning.

Most of these houses are weeks away from being safe for residency, according to Mack Rhoades, co-chair of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizen’s Associations and a Huntington resident who was not affected by flooding.

"The main problem is that in some cases the water contains raw sewage. It is also up to the gas meters in many of the houses and that had to be turned off, " said Castillo "If the contaminated water gets into the house plumbing the entire system has to be flushed before it can be used safely".

By Tuesday, almost every home had been pumped out privately or with the help of the Fairfax Fire Department. But removing standing water is only the first step. Houses in which the electrical boxes were submerged, the vast majority, must have those panels replaced before power can be restored. After this, homeowners must strip out every part of their home that absorbed water contaminated with sewage and petroleum products. But before they can strip their walls to the foundation, residents must haul out the soggy mass of furniture, clothing, utensils, electronics, books, baby pictures, letters and every object imaginable that tumbled for hours in basements like clothes in a washing machine.

“The biggest problem is going to be that we had a lot of people without flood insurance,” Rhodes said. Many of the houses were located just above the official floodplain, so their owners were not required to buy flood insurance, according to Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland. He said that only days before the flooding, county officials had shown him maps revised by FEMA after a new study. He said these maps relocated the floodline to include some of the flooded houses. Their owners will be notified of the necessity to buy flood insurance.

ON SUNDAY night and Monday morning, evacuees were brought to Edison High School, which was transformed into an emergency shelter by the Red Cross. Twenty people spent the night at the shelter on Sunday. 18 stayed there Monday night. Hundreds of others stayed with families or friends.

About 150 people attended a meeting on Monday night in Edison’s auditorium. Hyland moderated the meeting, with more than fifteen representatives of state and county services on stage with him, including County Chairman Gerald Connolly. Representatives from the county’s departments for building codes, solid waste disposal, water, emergency management, health, police, fire and rescue, family services and others detailed their initial assessments of the situation and how they were prepared to assist flooded residents.

But the county may be receiving little help from the federal government. Hyland announced that FEMA had refused requests to become part of the recovery effort. He and Connolly vowed to turn to state and federal representatives to pressure FEMA into changing its stance.

A long line of people told emotional stories of close escapes, described the sludge-filled junkyards that had once been rooms of carefully-stored possessions, detailed their dissatisfaction with rescue efforts and demanded to know what measures the county would take to ease the challenges they would face in the coming days and weeks.

Some of the attendees excoriated Hyland and other leaders for what they saw as a failure to procure services. “Your matter-of-fact acceptance that FEMA has said this is not a disaster area is unacceptable,” said Tim Tucker. “You’re an elected official. It’s go-time.”

But one question wove throughout the three-hour meeting. Why did the floodwaters rise to an unprecedented level?

“How do we know it’s not going to happen again?” Natalia MacDonald asked. Her voice broke as she described her family’s escape from their flooding house.

“I want to talk about the real problem,” said Rodney Grimes. “I almost lost my life last night. And it wasn’t because of Mother Nature.” Grimes blamed construction on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Many in the room agreed with him. He said flood levels at his home had increased dramatically since construction of the bridge began.

Hyland said no one knew what caused the flooding. But he did not dismiss the theory that the bridge might be responsible. “The only conclusion you can make logically is you had too much water that couldn’t go anywhere and it backed up and flooded your community,” Highland said. “My gut tells me that something got stopped up somewhere. Can I prove that? I can’t yet.”

NO ONE disputes that record rainfalls were the immediate cause of the flooding. Andy Woodcock, a meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s center in Sterling, described a north-south front of tropical thunderclouds caught against a high pressure trough over the Appalachian Mountains, sucking moisture from the Atlantic Ocean. “The moisture kept feeding into the system,” Woodcock said, “and eventually the thunderstorms just bloomed and it was just this never-ending moisture train.”

Though tropical systems produce weak thunderstorms, they are highly efficient at squeezing rain from the atmosphere. “This is pretty rare,” Woodcock said, referring to the system’s intense rainfall and stasis above the region. He said the rain recorded at the National Airport had already set a record for all-time rainfall in the month of June. Almost all of this rain, 12.11 inches had fallen between Saturday and Tuesday.

But council chairman Rhoades said county engineers told him even this historic rainfall could not account for flood levels seen in the area. He said he believed the flood was a product of the density of development occurring throughout the Cameron Run Watershed.

According to county maps, Falls Church, Bailey’s Crossroads, Annandale and southern Alexandria all drain into Cameron Run. As more buildings go up, more land gets paved over and more trees go down, less stormwater is absorbed and more must drain into Cameron Run.

Despite residents’ assertions, the effect of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on the flooding in Huntington is ambiguous.

One mishap related to bridge construction did affect water flow. The flooding washed a Flexifloat contractor barge from the Route I Interchange to the Washington St. Overpass. Each Flexifloat, a section of a barge is 40 feet by 10 feet by 3 feet.. The barge or barges, the number was unclear, sank and blocked water flow under the bridge.. Steel beams on the barge were also deposited at the bridge. Divers from Crofton Diving of Portsmouth, VA began work Monday to remove the blockage and expected to be finished sometime on Wednesday.

But in a press release, Ronaldo “Nick” Nicholson, Project Manager for the bridge project, denied that bridge construction could have played a role in the flood at Huntington. “The suggestion that the project caused or contributed to the flood is misplaced,” Nicholson wrote, citing the “relatively steep elevation of Cameron Run and the nature and distance of [the project’s] downriver activities.” Nicholson did acknowledge that the sunken barge was responsible for “partially obstructing water flow under the bridge. However, flooding experienced at Cameron Run more than two miles upstream could not have been caused by this blockage.”

Hyland said he and Connolly have written a letter to Governor Timothy Kaine, asking him to direct Wilson bridge builders to investigate if bridge construction had a role in the matter.

REGARDLESS of whether human decisions bear any blame, Rhoades said his community needs to know what caused the flood. “We can’t wait around for another study with the risk of getting flooded again,” Rhoades said. “We always get flooded, but it’s just never like this.”

At a meeting on Tuesday afternoon, Hyland announced that the Army Corps of Engineers had agreed to amend a current contract with the county to add a study of the Huntington flood plain to an ongoing study of New Alexandria. He said the Board of Supervisors had reached out to state and federal representatives to push the county’s case for federal aid.

In addition Hyland said he was “going to ask that the state declare a state of emergency to try to use that as a lever to try to spring free federal funds.

A spokesperson for the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services said its engineers are investigating with the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers to understand as quickly as possible what caused the flooding.

In the meantime, police cruisers sit at the ends of Arlington Terrace and Fenwick Drive on alert for looters. Rescue workers hand out Tyvek body suits and escort people into unsafe homes. Garbage trucks are scheduled to come every day to collect trash left on the curb. Neighbors ignore the smell of sewage and carry out bag after bag and box after box of soaked, soiled and swirled pieces of their lives.

In addition to Fairfax County Fire and Rescue units being on the scene from stations as far west as Vienna, there were Haz Mat personnel, building inspectors, Health Department personnel, and Police Department.