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The Flood of 2006

Torrential downpour dumps 12 inches of rain on the city in four days.

The rain began on Sunday night and didn’t let up. The downpour caused an immediate crisis, flooding the Eisenhower valley and dumping silt onto the Capital Beltway. Barges carrying construction equipment for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge broke free and dumped several iron bars into Cameron Run — blocking one of the culverts that was needed for proper drainage into the Potomac River. All over town, basements flooded and residents became shell-shocked at the damage and drivers found themselves trapped in the relentless rush of water.

“On Sunday night, several people were trapped in their vehicles on Telegraph Road — and they were being swept away,” said Amy Bertsch, public information officer for the Alexandria Police Department. “We had five officers on the scene who rescued several people from their vehicles and from the water.”

On Eisenhower Avenue, the water pushed around parked cars as if they were playthings. Flooding on Pickett Street was so bad that a delivery vehicle was sucked into a nearby creek. In Rosemont, raw sewage spewed from basement fixtures. The electrical system at Southern Towers was fried by the deluge, leaving more than 500 residents without power for days. Abandoned vehicles dotted the roadside all over the city.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mayor Bill Euille. “This is a very unusual storm in terms of the magnitude and the velocity of the rain.”

OVER IN FAIRFAX County, Lake Barcroft began dumping streams of water into tributaries of Cameron Run — which was already blocked by barges and iron bars. While the lake usually lets less than 10 percent into the stream, the heavy rains forced a 42-percent flow.

“That certainly had a lot to do with the water in Holmes Run and Cameron Run,” said Richard Baier, director of the city’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.

Fairfax County supervisor Penelope Gross said it was a “wild stretch of the imagination” to blame the Cameron Run flooding on Barcroft Lake. Others wanted to blame the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, but a National Park Service representative disagreed.

“The problem is not the Woodrow Wilson Bridge,” said Dan McClarren, chief of maintenance for the National Park Service. “The blame is 10 inches of rain.”

THE FLOOD of 2006 dumped more than 12 inches of rain on Alexandria in a matter of four days, setting records that many would have rather ignored. It sent drenched residents wading into fetid water to rescue property, and it had city workers scrambling to battle the elements. It toppled several Bradford Pear trees in Del Ray, and it left debris all over Old Town. Ultimately, it presented a challenge that the city struggled to meet.

“We had four dump trucks working for 10 hours on Eisenhower Avenue,” said Baier. “They were clearing mud and debris.”

On Sunday, emergency calls were ten times their normal numbers. Since then, they’ve been at twice their normal levels. To centralize their response, city leaders have set up an emergency response center at the Nannie Lee Center.

“The emergency operations center is staffed 24 hours a day at this point,” said City Manager Jim Hartmann during a Tuesday briefing at City Hall. “We will keep it operational until we are certain that this event is over.”

At press time, emergency responders were bracing for the Potomac River to crest on Thursday evening — and event that could cause half of the 100 block of King Street to flood. City officials have been distributing sandbags at George Washington Middle School and Windmill Hill Park.

IN ROSEMONT, Douglas Hilderbrand had been avoiding his basement. He knew that it may have flooded Sunday night — and he had to check Monday morning before heading off to work as a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. He was shocked to see that the toilet in his basement was spewing raw sewage.

“It was basically a worst-case scenario,” Hilderbrand said. “Everything that the sewage touches is destroyed. The carpet, the tiling, the drywall. Everything.”

Hilderbrand stripped the basement bare and prepared for the inevitable second round of sewage the next day. He said that he does not have a “backflow preventer,” a piece of hardware that can be installed to prevent these kinds of instances. Councilman Rob Krupicka asked for a sense-of-council resolution Tuesday night to let the city manager help residents purchase “backflow preventers” for the future — if such a thing would ever again be necessary.

“In the meteorological community, we’re calling this a 200-year flood,” Hilderbrand said. “It’s definitely a historic weather event — the wettest June on record.”

AS EMERGENCY responders were briefing City Council members at Tuesday’s meeting, the room was suddenly buzzing with cell phones, beepers and all manner of wireless devices. The cacophony of digital gadgets rose to a crescendo as authorized personnel were receiving a simultaneous message. Code Enforcement Director Art Dahlberg stopped a presentation on the city’s flood response to check his device.

“Flash flood warning,” he said as the noises continued from every inch of the chamber.

“Just a reminder,” the mayor interrupted. “All pagers and cell phones are to be turned off — except for emergency personnel.”

“As you can see,” said Hartmann. “We’re all very wired.”