A swollen Potomac slowly recedes


Richard Brown who manages White's Ferry wades through the flood waters of the Potomac Wednesday October 31, 2012 in White's Ferry, MD. As far as flooding goes, this isn't as bad as its been in the past. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
October 31, 2012

Like a snake that just swallowed its dinner, the Potomac is bulging with water from the week’s rain, spilling over its banks into Georgetown and Alexandria with each high tide.

But even as the river flushed down several inches of rain that fell on its watershed beginning Sunday, weather experts said the massive storm system will not lead to the historic flood levels they once feared.

The National Weather Service said moderate flooding will continue through Thursday afternoon, projecting that the river will reach about two feet above normal in Alexandria and Georgetown at high tide late Wednesday night.

“Georgetown and Alexandria typically flood a couple of times a year,” said Jason Samenow of The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang. “This will be closer to that, and it’s not going to be a historic flooding.”

Moderate flooding was expected to continue through Thursday along the Atlantic coast.

As New York and New Jersey struggled with the storm’s devastation, the Washington region began to return to normal Wednesday after two days at a near standstill. People returned to work, schools opened, airports were back in action, the region’s trains and buses resumed service, and commuters got back into their cars.

And in another sign of progress, Pepco spokeswoman Myra Oppel announced that as of 9:12 p.m. Wednesday, the utility had restored power to all customers who suffered storm-related outages, which was earlier than it had anticipated.

Maryland authorities are investigating whether as many as nine deaths since Monday were related to the hurricane.

Four of the nine died from exposure — one woman in Montgomery County, another in Prince George’s County and two in Baltimore — according to the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. A source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigations were continuing said that one was an Alzheimer’s patient who had wandered outside and that another suffered from severe mental illness.

Three others, including Clarksburg resident Mai Ai Lam-Phan, 66, died in automobile-related accidents. A Capitol Heights man died early Tuesday when he was crushed by a minivan while changing a tire. Prince George’s authorities have not listed the death as storm-related, but state officials said it is unclear if the vehicle was blown off its jack by a gust of wind.

Wind also toppled a tree that killed Donald Cannata Sr., who was pinned in his home in Pasadena.

People who had spent days cooped up at home because of the storm ventured out on Wednesday, and many of them found themselves stuck in a 15-mile backup on the Capital Beltway. A crash blocked most of the outer loop in Maryland for several hours, causing major delays on the Beltway, Interstate 95, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and other roads.

Metro began running its normal weekday service, although several Metrobuses encountered delays and detours because of flashing traffic signals, fallen trees and downed power lines. The D.C. Circulator and suburban commuter buses all hit the road, and Virginia Railway Express and MARC trains again began ferrying people back to work.

Planes, trains moving

After days of Sandy-related flight cancellations, things were slowly returning to normal at Dulles International, Reagan National and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall airports, although airlines were still getting planes and crews back on schedule. At BWI, airlines began ramping up their flights, with passengers finding ticket counters decorated for Halloween.

Amtrak’s trains began moving through the Northeast once again, though only as far north as Newark. Acela service was canceled, as were Northeast Regional trains meant to run between Newark and Boston.

The normally languid Potomac might continue to be roiled for days, another consequence of the storm’s freak nature. The tropical rainfall turned to snow when it reached the cold jet stream in western Maryland and Virginia. Now, more than two feet of snow is on the ground in places where the average high temperature for the beginning of November is usually above 50 degrees.

Some of that sits on the western edges of the region’s watershed, and when it starts to melt, it could prolong the flush of storm water into next week. One of the Potomac’s worst floodings came in January 1996, when there was a sudden thaw after a blizzard.

At Georgetown’s Washington Harbour, murky, brown water rushed level with the pier’s highest boards, at least five feet higher than normal. But late Tuesday night, as high tide approached, there appeared to be little threat of the water breaching the floodwalls.

Gatorade bottles and a yellow flip-flop were swept downstream, riding the current with birds and massive chunks of driftwood. A thin, sticky layer of mud caked the boardwalk for blocks.

Tangles of tree branches and logs drifted by from as far away as Pennsylvania and West Virginia, said Brooks Bowen, a lawyer and former special assistant to the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“This is spectacular, how fast it’s moving,” Bowen said of the debris-filled river. “The good news is that damage may be bad, but the cleanup creates a lot of jobs.”

Many compared the water level with that of the flood-swollen Potomac in April 2011, when flash floods killed seven people and inundated Washington Harbour restaurants and businesses with water and mud.

With no structural damage, the Alexandria waterfront looked remarkably normal Wednesday after several days of flooding. The water taxi was preparing for a run, and businesses including Chart House Restaurant were busily getting ready for lunch. Two businesses close to the water, Starbucks and a Thai restaurant, were closed pending a health inspection.

The Potomac Riverboat water taxi had been closed Monday and Tuesday.

On the dock, dogwalker Stacey Taylor, who lives in Del Ray, strolled by with Leo, an orange-brown mixed-breed puppy.

“We’ve been cooped up for several days,” she said, enjoying the fresh air.

Tony Castrilli, spokesman for the City of Alexandria, said officials have not found any storm damage to the waterfront.

He added that the city will be closely monitoring high tide at night in case there’s a surge. “We’re keeping a close eye on it,” Castrilli said. “If there’s a problem, we’ll notify everyone and put up barricades.”

He added, “We thought today would be a problem, but it wasn’t.”

In western Montgomery, four to five feet of water from the overflowing Potomac filled the White’s Ferry Store. A ferry was tied up on what should be the banks, but muddy water covered the road where between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. about 350 commuters would usually be pulling their vehicles onto and off the ferry that runs between Dickerson and Loudoun County. A six-foot pole on shore was beneath the water.

The river had started rising Monday afternoon, said the ferry’s manager, Richard Brown, leading the operators to cut off ferry service about 4 p.m. By Tuesday morning, he said, the river had cleared its banks. Early Wednesday, water ebbed into the store and across the parking lot.

“It keeps coming and coming,” Brown said as he stood on the edge of the flooded parking lot in thigh-high rubber boots.

Around noon Wednesday, Malcolm Brown — Richard’s uncle and the ferry’s general manager — pulled up to take a look.

“Is it still rising, or has it crested?” he asked Richard.

“It’s still coming up, about two inches per hour,” Richard told him.

“I think that’s about as high as it’s going to go,” Malcolm said.

Remembering the past

Far above the store’s door, between as well as above two second-floor windows, were marked dates when the river reached its worst: “6-24-72” for Hurricane Agnes. Below it, two other markings: “1-21-96,” after a blizzard, and below that, “11-07-85,” from remnants of Hurricane Juan.

Would this week’s storm cause one of worst floods they’d had?

R. Edwin Brown, 92, the ferry’s owner as well as Malcolm’s father and Richard’s grandfather, responded, “Oh, no, no, no.”

Roads in Delaware’s Fenwick Island and Dewey Beach reopened Wednesday morning, and officials began assessing damage and clearing debris.

“Every single person I talk to says the same thing,” said Rehoboth businessman Jeff Warner, who began making sales calls again. “We dodged the bullet.’”

At Fenwick Island, where waters rose to as much as six feet and almost all the homes on the bay side of town were flooded, officials found a boat in someone’s yard Wednesday morning as well as an entire dock that had floated away and landed in town.

It has been some of the worst flooding Merritt Burke, town manager of Fenwick Island, said he has seen in a lifetime in the area — and some of the worst beach erosion.

Still, Burke was relieved. “We were really concerned about the dunes breaching and the Atlantic Ocean pouring in through town to the back bays.”

In Bethany Beach, Town Manager Cliff Graviet was thankful that the winds shifted before the height of the storm, pushing water back out of the bay and pushing the ocean back. That helped keep the dunes intact The beach is a lot smaller now. And there was widespread flooding — water was still on some roads Wednesday afternoon — but overall, Graviet said, “We were spared.”

Aaron C. Davis, Mark Berman, Susan Svrluga and Rachel Karas contributed to this report.

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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