Fairfax County flood victims at a crossroads

People in Fairfax County’s Huntington community who waded from their homes during last month’s devastating flash floods have had it up to their necks with something more than water.

Every time Cameron Run floods their homes, government officials show up, tour the wreckage and promise remedies. New studies of the flooding are undertaken. Solutions such as levees, dredging and floodwalls are proposed. Yet, nothing gets done.

Graphic

A flood of problems
Click Here to View Full Graphic Story

A flood of problems

More on this Story

View all Items in this Story

MORE LOCAL NEWS

Read stories from D.C., Maryland and Virginia

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is again talking about building a $30 million levee and pumping station, although skeptical Huntington residents say it’s not much different from the berm that was first proposed at least as far back as 1977 — except that such solutions have only become more expensive.

Now, after the second serious flood in five years, many in the community have arrived at a crossroads, driven by desperation.

Some want to move. Some want to stay and fight for a levee. Others are ready to embrace redevelopment, even if it means giving up on a 40-year-old zoning plan designed to preserve the diverse, blue-collar community of affordable duplexes that has stood there since the 1940s.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think this isn’t going to happen again,” said Geoff Livingston, 39, who filed a lawsuit against the county and state after the 2006 flood. He expressed little hope that anything would change this time.

“This is the slum as far as Fairfax is concerned,” said Livingston, a media consultant who put up footage of the flood on his blog.

Livingston said he and his wife, Caitlin, 40, suffered about $50,000 worth of damage in the 2006 flood and at least $30,000 in damage last month, he said. In addition to wrecking their small brick duplex again, the Sept. 8 flood frightened their 11-month-old daughter, Soleil. They plan to move. So do others, who doubt that the county will ever come up with millions of dollars to protect such a small number of modestly priced homes.

Yet some hold out hope that this time will be different. Many want to preserve Huntington, a community of 11,267 people whose affordable housing serves working-class families, hipsters, young families, recent immigrants and retirees. Census data show that the community’s 5,804 households have a higher percentage of minorities and a lower average income than the rest of the county.

“What I hear from a lot of people is, they want to keep living where they’ve been living because this is a long-standing community with a lot of diversity and people looking after one another,” said Alan Ruof, a member of the Huntington Community Association. Ruof said people’s first choice would be building protective structures, such as the levee.

Others — mindful that state, federal and county governments are still struggling after the worst downturn since the Great Depression — are considering selling out to developers interested in building high-rises.

‘Quickest, easiest solution’

Eunice Johnson, 85, who moved into her Arlington Terrace duplex on May 26, 1948, is certain of two things. The first is that the flooding has worsened, especially in the past five years, perhaps because Cameron Run has not been dredged in decades. The second is that talk of a levee is likely just that — talk.

“It’s too much money,” said Johnson, who was still mopping up from the flood last week and seeing what could be salvaged of the things she had stored in 20-gallon plastic containers after the last flood.

“I think they’ll do the development because it gives them more money,” Johnson said. “They’ll get us out of here and redevelop it.”

Others joke darkly that nothing has been done to fix the problem because their wealthy county would prefer to unlock potential new tax revenue by rebuilding and gentrifying a low-income neighborhood a few blocks from a Metro station.

County officials reject the notion that government has failed Huntington’s residents.

“Several things were done,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon S. Bulova (D) said, including the most recent flood study and attempts to secure state and federal funding for flood mitigation. The county also set up an e-mail alert system to warn of flooding.

With redevelopment, the county could increase density near the Metro station and revitalize the area with new shops and businesses. Supporters say the county could give incentives to developers to set aside affordable dwellings for Huntington residents.

“That’s the quickest, easiest solution to the problem,” said Supervisor Jeff C. McKay, a Democrat whose Lee district borders the area.

Redevelopment would also require altering a Neighborhood Conservation Plan that was designed to protect the community from development when the Huntington Metro station was built in the 1970s.

“Now there are some residents who were flooded who feel their hands were tied by that Neighborhood Conservation Plan,” said David Coon, an officer in the Huntington Community Association.

In November 2008, the civic association drafted amendments to the conservation plan to guide redevelopment. These amendments were also contingent on building flood protection by 2013; if nothing was done, the amendments would have committed the community to redevelopment.

But the county never acted on those amendments, either. Merni Fitzgerald, a county spokeswoman, said staff ceased work on them because of the multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by Livingston, Johnson and others.

Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D), whose Mount Vernon district includes Huntington, has proposed a bond referendum to raise money for the levee and other countywide stormwater projects. But Hyland, who knows that voters rejected similar measures in 1978 and 1990, expressed frustration, too.

“You find in our budget $30 million that I can get six members of the board to agree to take out of the general fund,” Hyland said.

A history of flooding

In April 1864, Cameron Run overflowed its banks during “the heaviest freshet seen in 10 years” and flooded the Orange and Alexandria Railroad bridge, according to the Alexandria Gazette.

It’s one of the earliest known mentions of flooding in a Potomac River tributary that, as recently as the 19th century, allowed ships to navigate its lower reaches. Today, a person in knee-high boots can walk across Cameron Run in some places.

The reason is that suburban development paved over fields with parking lots, devoured wetlands and deposited silt. In recent years, the flooding has worsened, partly owing to man-made causes such as construction on the Capital Beltway, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the Route 1 interchange, several studies show.

The first documented flood study took place in 1970, four years after a record flood that initiated discussion of federal intervention. Then came Tropical Storm Agnes in June 1972, which cost the county $25 million worth of damage, and Tropical Storm Eloise three years later.

More studies followed, including a December 1977 report by Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade and Douglas that recommended 40 projects. None was completed.

A 1982 study by Camp Dresser & McKee explored flood protection options such as dredging or building a levee or floodwall at an estimated cost of nearly $4 million. Nothing happened.

In 2006, Cameron Run flooded 160 homes and caused an estimated $10 million in damage — the worst such flood until last month’s deluge targeted 163 homes.

After the 2006 flood, the county spent about $1 million for a new study. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers examined several options: building a levee and a pumping station, dredging, elevating and flood-proofing existing homes, and even a buyout, which was estimated to cost nearly $100 million.

The corps’s April 2009 report recommended building a levee and pump house. But the study also concluded that the estimated cost of more than $20 million would not meet federal cost­benefit thresholds to proceed. Even if it did, federal officials said it would be so low on a list of projects for other flood-prone communities that it would be unlikely to get funding.

In all, engineers have conducted at least 11 studies. Several repeat key findings, such as ruling out Lake Barcroft as a cause or casting doubt on the efficacy of dredging, which has not been done since the 1970s.

Taking action

In 2008, Huntington residents took action when Livingston and more than 130 other owners and renters sued Fairfax County and the Virginia Department of Transportation, seeking approximately $9 million.

The lawsuit, Geoff Livingston, et al. v. Fairfax County and VDOT, says the repeated flooding is a consequence of Capital Beltway construction, which relocated Cameron Run’s channel, and unbridled suburban development upstream. Yet neither the county nor the state did anything about it for 23 years, the lawsuit says.

“What you ended up having is, you’ve created a concrete stream,” said Robert J. Cynkar, the plaintiffs’ attorney.

A Fairfax judge dismissed the case against the county but allowed the plaintiffs to proceed against VDOT, which has appealed.

At Hyland’s request, county supervisors voted Sept. 13 to ask staff to consider a bond referendum that would raise money for stormwater projects, including $30 million for a levee in Huntington. The board would next have to approve a referendum, and voters would decide whether to issue the bonds. Bulova said the proposal could be reviewed as early as next summer in time to go on the November 2012 ballot.

“On its face, Huntington is a parochial issue affecting only Mount Vernon, but globally the issue of controlling floodwater is endemic to all Fairfax County and demands a solution,” Hyland said. “More importantly, our policy is to preserve affordable housing — that’s why Huntington must be saved.”

Staff writer Patricia Sullivan and researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

 
Read what others are saying