Last Thursday’s unveiling of the Corps of Engineers Report on the June flooding of Huntington was an opportunity for about 200 people gathered at Walt Whitman Middle School to vent their frustration with government for failing to protect them in the past. But it also gave them a glimpse into the future, the distant future. Gerry Hyland vociferously advocated for dredging as a solution that can be done much sooner than the Corp’s five-to-seven-year timeline. But some residents wondered whether selling out wouldn’t make more sense as an ultimate solution.
“We need better service from the state, the county, from the federal government. They tell us we’re rich. We’re not. We worked hard for what we have,” said Marta Aramayo, who owns two homes that were flooded. “We tell our kids clean up our mess … Why didn’t you do that?”
“The short answer is, ‘They didn’t’ and I can’t do anything about the fact that they didn’t,” said Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland, who absorbed most of the frustration from his constituents as he sat in the center of the school’s auditorium.
“If I were in your shoes, I’d be mad as the dickens that all these things weren’t taken care of,” Hyland acknowledged at the beginning of the meeting, after listing the developments sanctioned by the county that have made the low-lying Huntington neighborhoods off Arlington Terrace more flood-prone than ever.
But the residents of Huntington have had six months to ponder what could have been done. The question of the night was: what will be done? And how long will it take?
The Corps of Engineers presented options, but no answers. It could be a year before the second phase of their study reveals the most effective steps to protect the community. And another five to seven before anything is actually built, according to Stacey Underwood, the project manager of the Corps Study, who presented much of the information from the report.
FAIRFAX COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS CHAIRMAN Gerry Connolly attended the meeting and presented what he and Hyland hope will be the county’s first step towards allaying the fears of Huntington residents: creating a grant program to ensure everyone in the floodplain can afford flood insurance to cover their houses from catastrophic damage.
But the point Hyland hammered again and again, and transformed into a refrain by the end of the three-hour meeting, was the urgency of dredging the six feet of accumulated sediment that caused the bulk of the June flooding.
“If we conclude that ultimately dredging should be done, then let’s get it done sooner rather than later,” Hyland said. He called this an interim rather than an ultimate solution. The Corps is considering two structural flood control measures: floodwalls and levees between seven and ten feet high. It will also study the feasibility of flood-proofing individual homes, buyouts and dredging. Hyland made dredging a focus of the meeting, but questions about buyouts suggested that some homeowners are intrigued by a solution that could be done quickly and would certainly be ultimate.
BECAUSE THE TWO-FOOT INCREASE in flooding caused by sediment was by far the biggest factor in the flooding, Hyland said he was convinced it would be part of the solution. He displayed impatience when staffers demurred from validating the view that dredging’s inevitability meant the county should commit to the process now in order to alleviate Huntington’s flood risk in the short term.
But Underwood cautioned that “dredging itself is not a simple solution.” She said its extent would have to be calculated. “Is it miles? How wide? How deep? You’re talking about a lot of material… Yes, dredging sounds like a great solution and it may be the best solution, but that’s a lot of material and you need to find a place to put it.”
Hyland was undeterred. “I think everyone in this room has, I’m sure, reached the conclusion that it doesn’t make any sense to not dredge Cameron run and get rid of the five to six feet of sediment,” he said later.
“If we believe that it would be part of an ultimate solution then let’s do it sooner rather than later.”
But Underwood said the study might show that, for instance, dredging and a floodwall would cost the same amount, and a floodwall would provide more protection. Rushing into a dredging operation could mean the county spends its money less effectively.
Hyland’s response was to poll high ranking county staff in the room.
“We need to know more information than we know right now,” said Jimmy Jenkins, Fairfax County’s Director of Public Works and Environmental Services.
Hyland had called Richard Baier, Alexandria City’s Director of Transportation and Environmental Services, back into the room after he had risen to leave two and a half hours into meeting. His answer was more to Hyland’s liking.
“I think that any solution is going to involve some augmentation to the channel,” Baier said, adding that business owners in the flood-prone Eisenhower Valley want a solution as soon as possible.
ENTHUSIASM for another immediate solution seemed to take Hyland by surprise. In response to one attendee’s question about buyouts, he replied. “This is not where I thought this community is and would want to go.”
Hyland said the entire community would have to agree to a buyout program — selling their houses to the county and abandoning the neighborhood en masse: “all or nothing.” He acknowledged that this approach might be the cheapest. But said he had not been swayed by raw economics. “I think we ought to be spending what it’s going to take to give the community the right to stay there.”
John and Judy McGraw live in Alexandria but own two rental properties that were flooded. They said they were discouraged by the results of the meeting. “Nothing’s going to happen anytime soon, so we’re going to be just as vulnerable as we were last June,” Judy McGraw said. She said a buy-out was the “most sensible idea.”
Elliot Fields, Jr. lives on Fenwick Drive. He was one of the people to ask about buyouts. “I don’t want to wait all this time or take a chance,” he said. “I’d rather just move out and not have to deal with it.”
Even if it meant leaving Fairfax County?
“That depends on the money,” he replied.