Near the end of June, tropical thunderclouds had been trapped over the metro region for days, sucking moisture from the Atlantic ocean and dropping it to earth as drenching rain. “The moisture kept feeding into the system,” said Andy Woodcock, a federal meteorologist in Sterling, “and eventually the thunderstorms just bloomed and it was just this never-ending moisture train.”
On the night of June 25, the unwitting residents of 160 homes in the Huntington area were sitting squarely on the tracks.
According to county maps, Falls Church, Bailey’s Crossroads, Annandale and southern Alexandria all drain into Cameron Run. Decades of development in this watershed replaced thousands of acres of absorbent earth and vegetation with impermeable rooftops, parking lots and roads and also constricted the flow of the stream with new buildings, highways and a massive bridge project. Minor flooding had become commonplace for the 1950’s era duplexes on Arlington Terrace and Fenwick Drive in Huntington, even though many of them sat hundreds of feet from Cameron Run.
But no one was prepared for the waters that rose so suddenly that Sunday night, completely filling most basements and forcing people to wade to higher ground, then wait for hours at the Huntington Metro station before transportation to an emergency shelter was finally arranged. Stephanie Rush described how she and her children watched the water rise in her basement until it spilled an inch deep across the first floor. Rescue workers arrived at her Arlington Terrace home at 3 a.m. and carried her four-year-old and one-year-old children through twenty feet of knee-high water. Rush and her eight-year-old daughter followed them. In the days after the flood, while many residents were still living in an emergency shelter set up at Edison High School, stories like Rush’s were as common as inspection certificates and bottles of spring water.
On the sunlit mornings that followed the rainy weekend, the devastation was starkly apparent. 160 homes had been rendered uninhabitable for weeks. Great piles were dragged into the street: record collections, photo albums, documents, clothing, televisions, couches, dressers, even the studs and the drywall of the rooms themselves. For residents hoping for clearance to move back in, replacing electrical panels and damaged wiring was the first hurdle. Tearing out and airing saturated wood, scrubbing mold, replacing H/VAC systems and furnaces and washers and dryers meant weeks of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
County Fire and Rescue and police had a constant presence in the area. The Red Cross and the county’s Health Department, Housing and Community Development, Stormwater Management and Land Development Services all dedicated personnel. For weeks, 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.
Mack Rhoades, president of the Huntington Community Association, wrote an open letter from the association to Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerry 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.”
A SURVEY SHOWED that half of the flooded occupants relied on their basements as a primary room in their house. These basements make the homes very expensive to insure, and 2/3 of the homeowners opted not to pay for flood insurance, which could have cost them several thousand dollars per year. Data from the 2000 U.S. Census demonstrated that Huntington’s median income was only 2/3 of the county average.
18 days after floodwaters from Cameron Run rose into Huntington and caused the evacuation of more than 150 homes, President Bush declared parts of Virginia, including Fairfax County and Alexandria, a federal disaster area. But FEMA designated money only for the state and federal governments, and none for the residents. And despite appeals from the county Board of Supervisors and the Governor of Virginia, it did not change its mind. FEMA public information officer Daniel Martinez said Fairfax County had demonstrated its resources were adequate to the task of restoring its residents to their homes. “If it doesn’t overwhelm the resources that they have … There’s no reason to take it further.”
In August, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved legislation introduced by Hyland that called for a plan to “remedy the problem of flooding in the Huntington Community.”
“Clearly the beltway development, interchanges at the mixing bowl, Telegraph Road, Richmond Highway, the replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, development on either side of the beltway, development of Eisenhower Valley and storm drain improvements to Cameron Run to prevent flooding in the City of Alexandria have cumulatively dramatically changed the amount and intensity of water flooding through Cameron Run next to the Huntington Community and nothing – absolutely nothing – has been done to protect these residents,” the board matter read.
This inaction comes despite the existence for more than two decades of studies that demonstrate the possibility of a catastrophic flood in the area and offer solutions. In April, 1982, the engineering firm Camp, Dresser and McKee presented an eerily prescient report to the County of Fairfax Department of Public Works. A memorandum accompanying the study describes it as an analysis of the flooding problems of “167 dwelling units … located within the 100 year flood plain limits of Cameron Run.”
The study called for a six-foot high concrete floodwall to be built around a perimeter that almost exactly matches the county’s diagrams of the extent of the June 25 flooding.
A bill of $3.5 million may have dissuaded county officials from acting on the recommendation, but the efficacy of the wall was undermined by a mandate that if a grotesquely swollen Cameron Run had to be forced south into the homes of Huntington or north onto the Beltway, it must be the people that received the water’s destructive force, not the road. “We have approached this study with the precondition that the beltway flooding should not be aggravated by any flood control measure which protects the community. This premise impacts the effectiveness of the measures we have selected,” the report reads.
ANOTHER STUDY came out in early November. Ordered by the governor, the joint project between VDOT and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project absolved the bridge of any blame for the June 25 flooding. Stream impacts from the construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge had been a primary culprit fingered by many flooded-out residents. 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.
One section of the report documents the massive changes made to the Cameron Run since the duplexes of Arlington Terrace were built in the 1950’s beside a naturally meandering stream draining miles of predominantly unpaved land. In 1960, construction of the Capitol Beltway 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 1960’s and 1970’s to accommodate Metrorail projects. Jones Point Apartments complex was built in the 1970’s, on a floodplain east and downstream of Arlington Terrace. Developers eliminated an important section of floodplain by raising the riverbank 14 to 16 feet with bulkheads made of “steel sheet piles.” The new riverbank raised the Jones Point Apartments safely above a flood plain still occupied upstream by Arlington Terrace. The report suggests the apartments’ “extensive encroachment” into the Cameron Run may have created a bottleneck that exacerbated floods in the Arlington Terrace area.
In six months since the flooding, there have been several more flood warnings. In November, 10 homes were briefly evacuated. No major flooding occurred, but residents are on edge. They are awaiting a comprehensive study the county commissioned from the Army Corps of Engineers that was due to be released in the last week of the year. More importantly, they are waiting for the county to take action to protect them.
“What you do when it rains is almost like having a nightmare,” said Fenwick resident Rodney Grimes. “Every time, you’re wondering, ‘Are we going to be floating again?’”