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Roads, Rails, Federal Offices Deluged
Floods Swamp Homes, Strand Drivers; Mud Closes Beltway

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.

When the wet air mass hits the front, lines of thunderstorms and showers form, creating what meteorologists call a "training effect" of nearly continuous storms. These are moving from the south-southwest to the north-northeast, on a route roughly paralleling Interstate 95.

"It sounds like a broken record. Rain through Tuesday, Tuesday night, Wednesday, Thursday, possible through Sunday," said Jackie Hale, a National Weather Service spokeswoman. "Here's some good news: They don't mention rain for next Monday."

The Weather Service put a flash flood warning into effect for the area through 1:45 a.m. today. A flash flood watch remains in effect throughout this evening.

The Potomac River could surpass its flood stage of 10 feet tomorrow and might reach 12 to 13 feet Thursday, National Weather Service forecaster Andy Woodcock said.

Lightning triggered at least five fires. Not even torrential rains could douse the intense blaze that drew 75 firefighters and eight tank trucks from Howard, Carroll, Montgomery and Frederick counties to the Howard home of James and Iola Smith.

During the blaze, "it would boom," said James Smith, describing how the fire raged and spread through his spacious five-year-old home. "It was like it was walking."

The most harrowing tales came from the highways, where drivers were suddenly and severely smacked by mudslides or fast-moving walls of water.

Alexandria Police Sgt. Mark Bergin said he was standing in waist-deep water helping people out of their cars Sunday night when things got really bad. A desperate call came across the police radio that children were in fast-flooding vehicles on Telegraph Road just off the Beltway.

Several officers rushed to the scene, including one who was on his way home from vacation. "They saw people on top of cars, they saw a baby on top of a car being held by people as water was rushing. Their descriptions were biblical, incredibly fast-rising water, in the space of a minute, rising two, three, four feet. This isn't just water. This is dark, rushing water, cars moving, turning over sideways, rolling over in the current," Bergin said.

He said the officers, with help from the fire department, got everyone out. Oddly, though, two men who were saved along with the baby jumped back into the water after they were rescued and had to be rescued again.

Their thanks? "These two guys hit the officers, swung on them for no reason," Bergin said, adding that they went back into the raging waters "we think for their cellphones."

They are now safe, dry and in jail.

A mudslide late Sunday gave new meaning to the phrase "stuck on the Beltway" as several drivers were trapped near the Telegraph Road interchange.

The mudslide forced the closing of the Beltway and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, causing stifling backups on both shores.

Parts of other major commuter routes, including Rock Creek Parkway in the District, Route 29 in Silver Spring and Interstate 395 and the George Washington Parkway in Northern Virginia, as well as dozens of secondary roads, were impassable because of water. U.S. Park Police said Rock Creek Parkway and Beach Drive would remain closed today.

Joe Nogueira knew things were going to be bad for him when he got to his exit for I-95 in Prince William. Or, rather, when he got semi-near his exit. "It was a half-hour before I even merged" onto the highway, said the civilian analyst for the Defense Department.

It didn't get much better from there. "It was bumper-to-bumper the whole way," he said, after enduring a three-hour commute to the Pentagon, his longest ever. "It was unbelievably bad," said Nogueira, who planned to go in late today to avoid a repeat. "[Interstate] 95 has just gotten to the point where any little thing and that's it -- and this was a big thing."

Many drivers were stuck before they ever left their driveways as heavy rains caused their batteries and other equipment to shut down, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend said. He said the car service had received more than 5,000 calls since Sunday and that 40 to 60 were still unanswered yesterday because of the extreme volume.

Commuters found no relief on the rails, either. Three Metro stations -- Archives-Navy Memorial, Federal Triangle and Braddock Road -- were flooded and unable to operate through the morning rush. Metro provided bus service between stations, but many riders complained about disorganized or nonexistent rides. Metro officials said delays lasted as long as an hour as buses were hamstrung by the same traffic problems facing all drivers.

Virginia Railway Express service was canceled yesterday and could be out again today because many parts of the line remain underwater and managers were having trouble getting repair equipment to the trouble spots, a spokesman said. MARC service was canceled on the Brunswick and Camden lines, and service was reduced on the Penn Line. MARC said it expected to resume normal service today, weather permitting.

In the District, the headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service, the Commerce Department, the Justice Department, parts of the Environmental Protection Agency at the Rios federal building and the National Archives were closed yesterday because of flooding and electrical problems. The National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History and the National Gallery of Art also closed. The National Zoo closed early.

About 10 p.m., flights headed to New York's LaGuardia Airport from Reagan National were delayed more than two hours, and flights to other destinations as much as an hour or more, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

As her yard in the 5700 block of Fenwick Drive in Fairfax County became submerged Monday night, and the water quickly spilled into her basement and onto her front porch, Brittany Duke, 21, said she momentarily pondered whether she and her roommate would be forced to climb onto the roof for safety.

"We were getting pretty nervous," she said, at the house that they had rented recently. Yesterday, they went to stay with friends.

Rodney Grimes, 46, a photographer who lives on Fenwick Drive, described last night how his back wall had caved in. "At this point, I'm in a panic," Grimes said. "I lost everything, almost my life."

A few miles away, a shelter was set up at Thomas Edison High School for those displaced by the flooding. Yesterday, about 25 people lingered in the school's cafeteria, where snacks and sandwiches were available.

Harry Colman, 59, said he and his wife were on their way home to their Huntington Avenue condominium late Sunday, after a weekend away and were diverted to the shelter. "The water was too high, we were told," he said, standing outside the cafeteria.

At a meeting last night, Fairfax government officials asked hundreds of residents of the Arlington Terrace area not to return to their homes. Several people did go home to collect household items and pets. Most of the 68 homes in the neighborhood were damaged, officials said, and two were uninhabitable.

Some of the displaced residents the meeting showed frustration over what they called officials' inability to identify the source of the floodwaters, or to remedy the problem.

"The most upsetting thing is, they keep saying: 'We don't know what caused it, and nobody's going to help you,' " said Nataliya Schetchikova, 33. "They will end up pointing fingers toward Mother Nature, and there's nothing we can do about it."

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