Roads, Rails, Federal Offices Deluged

By Steven Ginsberg and Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A rare tropical deluge that began Sunday and could continue through midweek unleashed floods that swamped homes and highways, closed several federal buildings in Washington and forced some people to swim for their lives.

Heavy rains caused a landslide in Chesapeake Beach, a mudslide that resulted in the closure of the Capital Beltway and Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the shutdown of most commuter rail lines and power outages at tens of thousands of homes. In Chevy Chase, boat crews rescued about 30 partygoers stranded at the field house in Candy Cane City park on Beach Drive.

Late last night and early today, Laurel officials advised about 1,000 residents in low-lying areas near Rocky Gorge Dam to prepare to evacuate in case the Patuxent River flooded after the opening of several of the dam's gates about midnight. An evacuation order could come today if heavy rains persist, said Jim Collins, a spokesman for the city.

The storms slammed downtown Washington, flooding critical commuter routes, such as Constitution Avenue and the 12th Street tunnel, and swamping a pair of heavily used Metro stations. Not even the White House could escape the damage, as a 100-year-old American elm tree fell near the front door. The House of Representatives canceled votes scheduled for last night because so many members could not fly into Washington.

The stalled commute added hours for drivers and transit riders trying to get to work, a problem that could be repeated today and possibly all week. Some important roads and rail lines remained underwater yesterday evening, and others are susceptible to more flash flooding.

Several roads, including heavily used commuter routes in Prince William and Montgomery counties, continued to flood during the day, causing additional backups during the evening rush. "The list would take me a half-hour to read," a Prince William police dispatcher said. Minor flooding was reported last night on thoroughfares such as River Road in Montgomery County as rain continued to fall.

By midnight last night, a total of 9.94 inches of rain had fallen at Reagan National Airport in the two days since midnight Saturday. That was believed to be the highest rainfall figure recorded there for any two consecutive calendar days. The 7.09 inches of rain recorded at the airport in the 24-hour period from 7 a.m. Sunday to 7 a.m. yesterday is second only to the 7.19 inches recorded when remnants of Hurricane Agnes passed through the region in June 1972.

Bob Reifenberger, 56, a furniture salesman, was caught in a downpour on Telegraph Road in Alexandria late Sunday. After driving off the exit ramp, he recalled yesterday, he encountered what he described as a "flash flood" -- a gush of water that forced him and people in as many as eight cars from their vehicles.

"My car just started to float away," he said, recounting by telephone how he climbed out his window. "I was hanging on to it. There were eight to 10 of us. We were stranded."

Transportation officials feared more of the same throughout the week. "If we get a deluge like we did, the same roads that were flooded [yesterday] will be flooded" today, said Michelle Pourciau, acting director of the D.C. Transportation Department.

The storms, which have caused massive flooding in the Washington area and along the East Coast, come without the glory of names like those given to tropical storms and hurricanes, but their effect has been equally historic, forecasters said.

The cause is a "tropical connection" that has been funneling an extremely wet air mass from the Bahamas up the East Coast, said Jim Lee, meteorologist in charge for the National Weather Service in Sterling. The moist air is going up against a stationary front that has hung over the mid-Atlantic for the past week.

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