'I Thought, This Is the End'

By Timothy Dwyer and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Suddenly homeless, Rodney Grimes had lugged out as many of his family's saturated possessions as he could. Yesterday morning, with a light rain taunting him and the other flooded-out residents of Fenwick Drive, Grimes stood alongside his landlord in front of his former home, a two-story duplex that Fairfax County officials condemned because the flood had caved in a basement wall.

"The problem is, I don't know where to start," said his landlord, Kurt Spence. "Should I clean it up? Should I shore it up? Should I get a contractor? I don't know where to start."

Frustration lived on Fenwick Drive yesterday. The dead-end street in the Huntington area of Fairfax has suffered perhaps the worst flooding in the region this week. In some spots, the water was 10 feet deep in the street, completely covering parked cars and flooding basements with up to eight feet of water containing raw sewage. More than half of the 311 homes in the area were so damaged that the residents have been forced to evacuate until repairs can be made.

"This was our Katrina," said Frank Sarley, who lives across the street from Grimes.

Fenwick Drive was under a mandatory evacuation order Monday night. First thing yesterday, Grimes and his neighbors were back at their homes, salvaging what they could and wondering when, or whether, they would be allowed to move back. Some had lived on the street for 10 or 15 years, through Hurricane Isabel in September 2003 and other storms, and never had there been flooding like they've seen this week.

Residents stood in the street as Capital Beltway traffic heading for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge hummed in the background. Many blamed the bridge replacement project for the flooding. They say it has changed the path of Cameron Run, which flows between their neighborhood and the Beltway.

Bridge officials disputed that. "We don't feel that the impact of the ongoing construction, or even our ultimate completed construction, would have an impact on what happened there this week," said Ronaldo Nicholson, project manager.

The residents of Fenwick Drive, who live in two-story duplexes that were built in the late 1940s and early 1950s, had their own theories.

All morning, Grimes, his wife, Patricia, and their daughter Nneka wandered through the wreckage of their home. Tacked to the front door was a red card declaring the property uninhabitable, which means residents cannot enter it.

The front yard and living room still carried signs of Nneka's 17th birthday party, which had ended just hours before Cameron Run rose suddenly and violently Sunday night -- a bag of hot dog buns, a stack of paper cups, a basket of fruit put out for guests.

Most of Nneka's clothes, including her favorite jeans, disappeared in the floodwaters that swamped the basement laundry room.

So too did the decades worth of photos that Rodney Grimes had collected. Gone was the pet turtle retrieved from a local pond, which Nneka could only hope was still paddling around somewhere. Lost were Grimes's photographic and computer equipment -- essential to his livelihood as a freelance photographer and music producer.

Grimes said they were scrambling to get stuff out of the basement as the water rushed in. Suddenly, they heard a loud noise. He thought the house had exploded and caught fire, so they rushed to leave, looking for flames. But there were none.

"I thought, this is the end. Everything was about to end," Patricia Grimes said. "After I heard the blast, I thought, if we go, we die. If we stay, we die. You could hear people crying, cats, animals. I could smell sewage, gas. I thought it was a nightmare. I kept telling myself, Patricia, wake up. But it was not a dream."

Finally, perhaps an hour later, emergency workers floated up on a raft to rescue them.

The neighborhood's bewilderment and frustration spilled over into a midday meeting of residents and county and Red Cross officials at Edison High School. The officials had some good news: Of the 311 homes inspected, only three had been "red tagged." An additional 158 had been damaged by flooding but can be occupied as soon as repairs are made. Grants and loans could help with the fixes.

But officials had no answer to the fundamental question raised by dazed and weary residents: Why rebuild if no one knows why the flooding happened or whether it can be prevented in the future?

"It does not make any sense to go through this if we don't know what caused the problem and how to solve it," said the Rev. Carolyn Boyd, who lives on Arlington Terrace, where floodwaters rose from her basement into the second-level living room.

County Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), who has asked the commonwealth and the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite investigations, said he understood. "You're right. I'd feel uncomfortable investing a lot of money. The real question is, what would it take to protect this community?"

The Grimes family left Fenwick Drive late yesterday morning after loading what they could into their car. They spent the afternoon at Edison, where round lunch tables and blue plastic chairs were filled with families getting insurance advice, filing building permits, requesting temporary housing and eating free sandwiches and potato chips provided by the Red Cross.

At each stop, the Grimeses went through a similar process.

"How long do you expect to be out of your house?" a Red Cross worker filling out paperwork asked Rodney Grimes.

"I don't mean to be smart, but it got condemned. Condemned," he said. "If I thought I could fix it, I wouldn't be here."

Staff writer Bill Turque contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company