Rock Creek's Scenic Drive Battered
Traffic Resumes on Most of Parkway as Cleanup Continues

By D'Vera Cohn and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 1, 2006

A green Volkswagen Jetta with D.C. plates lay with its nose immersed in muddy, bubbling Rock Creek yesterday, a jagged hole where its rear window used to be. Huge broken tree limbs were sprawled nearby across the water.

The ruined car, one of 15 vehicles stranded by floodwaters during this week's pounding, relentless rainstorms, was the first stop on a tour of destruction along Rock Creek Parkway, where around every curve lay a panorama of ransacked landscape. Much of the parkway was closed to traffic from Monday until yesterday's rush hour because of damage and threats of further flooding.

"It was worse than Isabel, and that was significant damage for us," said Cynthia Cox, assistant superintendent of the 1,800-acre Rock Creek Park, referring to the 2003 hurricane. She said creek waters have not receded enough for officials to know the extent of the damage.

As most of the parkway reopened, other parts of Washington also sprang back to life. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, closed for five days because of flooding, reopens today. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival began yesterday as scheduled, and the National Gallery, National Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian Castle have reopened. But the National Archives will remain closed for now.

Cleanup has been an immense job. In the worst-hit area of Rock Creek Park, from Virginia Avenue NW nearly to Military Road NW, crews hauled 18 trees off the parkway. An 82-foot section of pavement was eroded on Beach Drive, and parts of the bicycle path were blocked. Picnic tables were dumped downstream. Flooding damaged Peirce Mill, the park's Nature Center and its police station.

Park Police are not sure how the vehicles ended up stranded and abandoned, but they said that after the cars stalled in the water, the owners apparently got to safety. No injures were reported, although police rescued a taxi driver who called 911 for help from Beach Drive.

Tow crews hope to remove the Jetta today. They have tried twice since Tuesday, but the roiling water made it too risky. Most vehicles washed away by the rain had water up to their windows, Park Police Sgt. Scott Fear said. One vehicle's back end was pushed into a tree, five feet off the ground.

"A beautiful BMW, minivans -- you name it, all different kinds of cars," Fear said.

The mud that oozed onto the parkway had turned to silt, throwing up dust clouds as Fear drove slowly north in his police cruiser. He pulled over just south of the Massachusetts Avenue NW exit, pointing to an area of the road that had been flooded. A three-man crew, wearing hip boots and blue plastic gloves, worked with shovels, a hose and a pump to clear a stuffed drain.

Just short of the Cathedral Avenue NW exit was what might be called the park's tree graveyard. Piles of limbs and trunks lay on the side of the road, waiting to be fed into a large yellow machine -- the Intimidator -- to be chipped and ground.

Earlier, standing near the Jetta, the park's tree superintendent, Mike Papa, explained that the storm did not discriminate against any particular type of tree.

"Maples, elm, walnut -- all through here," he said, gesturing toward the southern end of the park. "At the north end, I had a lot of red oaks."

As Fear drove north, behemoth branches and trunks with giant root balls were piled across the creek at a spot where the brown water was placid, as if to say, "I'm done now."

North of Broad Branch Road, Beach Drive remains closed to drivers. There, rain-powered creek waters scoured away chunks of earth that supported the pavement. Near the police station, the road has a ragged edge, bordered by a trench cut by rainwater, with gravel and sand strewn about. Road crews planned to remove, shore up and replace 82 feet of the road's southbound lane. It could take several days.

"The water was up two feet on the side of the road," explained Joe Michael, a superintendent with College Park Paving. "I'm surprised it held up as good as it did."

Michael arrived on the scene when the creek was raging, carrying debris from upstream. Cox said the D.C. section of Rock Creek Park "inherited" at least one picnic table from the Maryland section.

"Tables, doors, gates," Michael said. "You name it. It's floated by here."

As frustrated motorists cursed the closing of Beach Drive, some people were saddened to see Rock Creek Parkway returning to its normal hubbub. For a day or two, runners, cyclists and dog walkers were elated by the rare opportunity to claim the major commuter thoroughfare as their own.

On Wednesday morning, for example, the winding, dipping section of Beach Drive between the National Zoo and M Street NW was a peaceful passageway. Sweating men and women ran in the center of the empty parkway, their shoes hitting the double yellow line. Cyclists whizzed along, without the normal worries that a car was getting too close. An elderly couple hiked down the middle of the road just because they could.

The songs of birds, normally drowned out by car engines, were audible. The sound of the rushing creek filled the air.

"Euphoric" is how Joel Gwadz described his Beach Drive bike commute this week. Gwadz, 39, lives in Mount Pleasant and works in the computer department at CBS News at 20th and M streets NW. The prospect of Beach Drive being closed to traffic was so alluring that he went north -- in the opposition direction of his downtown job -- to spend additional time on the road.

"Everyone was smiling and grinning," Gwadz recalled. "People were waving to each other. Everyone was really enjoying it."

The closure of the road offered a glimpse of what would happen if the National Park Service shut down segments of Beach Drive during off-peak weekday travel periods, as the Washington Area Bicyclist Association has been lobbying for it to do for years.

"I know the people who drive that road have been really ticked off, but I've loved it," said Samantha Smith, 38, who rode her bike this week between her Adams Morgan home and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, where she works as a psychologist.

"It's like a dream come true," she said, describing the joy of rolling down an empty exit ramp onto a vacant Beach Drive. "It is really like my fantasy world. No cars, no noise."

No more.

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