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VDOT Study Says Bridge Not to Blame

Report fingers heavy rain and past construction projects for Huntington floods.

VDOT and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project have released an internal study absolving the bridge of any blame for the June 25 flooding that made 161 houses in the Huntington area uninhabitable for weeks.

The report focuses on the historic amount of water that rushed through Cameron Run on the night of the flood, and on the massive changes made to the stream by development in the past fifty years, but flatly rejects the possibility that the bridge could have forced water to collect upstream and overflow into people’s homes.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer announced in a release that he will appoint an independent panel to review the study’s findings.

Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland said the Board of Supervisors is awaiting a reaction to the report by county staff, but his suspicions have not been allayed by the study’s release. “I’m not convinced. They’re suggesting that there was little or no impact from the bridge on the flooding, and my reaction to that is we know they put structures in the path of the water, we know that Cameron Run has not expanded but, I believe, has become tightened and narrower.”

The report said the water level at Fenwick Drive was raised an additional five inches by bridge construction, but this did not cause any additional houses to flood because they were all flooded by more than five inches of water. Aspects of the bridge construction that were taken into account include a barge that broke loose and jammed against the arch of the George Washington Parkway Bridge, added highway support piers in Cameron Run and equipment and dirt stockpiles that may have affected the water’s flow. The report said the barge only blocked 15 percent of the parkway bridge’s flow rate.

THE REPORT STRESSES that rainfall preceding the floods was at a historic high, 9.39 inches in 48 hours at Reagan National Airport, and that the water flow through Cameron Run was at its highest levels since Hurricane Agnes in 1972 and the second-highest ever measured since a meter was installed in 1953. The report says that on the night of June 25, the water in Cameron Run (which averages a one-foot depth throughout the year) rose from two feet to 14 feet in only two hours.

The report also cites numerous studies that find the flooded Arlington Terrace area to be within Cameron Run’s 100-year flood plain, the standard for flood risk that triggers mandatory flood insurance. It said that FEMA records show that in the past ten years “several” properties successfully applied to be removed from the floodplain. Most of these were “severely inundated.”

One section of the report documents the massive changes made to the Cameron Run streambed in the past 50 years. The houses in the Arlington Terrace neighborhood predate these changes. They were built beside a naturally meandering stream draining miles of predominantly unpaved land.

The first change documented by the report occurred in 1960, when Capitol Beltway construction began. To make room for Interstate 95, Cameron Run’s main channel was “relocated,” reducing its “meandering length” by 32 percent. Another section of the stream was “straightened” in the 1960s and 1970s to accommodate Metrorail projects.

Jones Point Apartments was built in the 1970s, on a floodplain east and downstream of Arlington Terrace that was one of Cameron Run’s major spill-over outlets for excess water. Developers eliminated the floodplain, raising the riverbank 14 to 16 feet by installing bulkheads made of “steel sheet piles” and backfilling the land with dirt. According to the report, this “effectively denied Cameron Run from using the south overbank upstream of Route 1 as a flood relief area.”

The new riverbank elevations raised the Jones Point Apartments safely above the flood plain that is still occupied upstream by Arlington Terrace. The report suggests the apartments’ “extensive encroachment” into the Cameron Run may have created a bottleneck that encourages siltation of the streambed and slows the flow of water upstream of the bulkhead.

HOURS AFTER FLEEING THEIR HOMES, evacuees in an emergency shelter were already accusing the massive bridge project of causing their plight, and local leaders soon joined the refrain. In response, the project manager for the Wilson Bridge issued a press release titled “Historic Flooding Caused by Historic Rainfall: Extraordinary Event is Unrelated to Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project.” But one month after the flood, shortly after he received a 130-signature petition from Huntington residents, Gov. Kaine ordered VDOT to study whether bridge construction could be culpable. VDOT oversees the portion of bridge construction and road improvement taking place in Virginia.

“This is the first step in a process of answering a complicated question,” Homer, the Secretary of Transportation, said when announcing the study. “The key is, there is an independent body with broad representation [to review the findings].” He said the independent review panel will have academic, professional and citizen representation. “It’s a very public and open review of the findings in that report.”

Randy Bartlett, the head of Fairfax’s Stormwater Management Department, said the county will be represented on the panel. He added that his staff is still reviewing the report, but stressed that VDOT was not addressing the full scope of the issue. “They looked at a piece of it.”

He said Fairfax County is awaiting a more comprehensive study it commissioned from the Army Corps of Engineers, which is due at the end of the year. This study will look at every possible cause of the flooding, rather than one particular theory.

He added that the VDOT employees who performed the study had shared information with the county and seemed to have taken a “logical approach.” But he’d encountered no major revelations in the VDOT report. “There’s nothing in there that I’ve gone, ‘Wow, this is a total surprise.’”