Prior Flood Remedies Were Ignored

Like many other Huntington residents, Rodney Grimes, whose basement was flooded after heavy rains last month, is still unable to live in his home.
Like many other Huntington residents, Rodney Grimes, whose basement was flooded after heavy rains last month, is still unable to live in his home. (By Mark Gong -- The Washington Post)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 24, 2006

Fairfax County commissioned two major studies that recommended a floodwall or an earthen berm to protect the Huntington neighborhood that was inundated by waters from Cameron Run during heavy rains last month.

Officials said last week that they are not sure why the studies -- one completed in December 1977 and the other in April 1982 -- failed to trigger any action. It appears, however, that the flood protection measures were considered too costly.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has begun investigating the June 25 flooding that seriously damaged more than half of the neighborhood's 311 homes and caused an estimated $10 million in losses -- making it one of the hardest-hit areas in the region. The foul, sewage-laden water rose to nearly 14 feet in some locations, the county estimates.

The two reports are part of a virtual library of data that Fairfax has forwarded to the Corps of Engineers for its inquiry. Officials have found at least six studies by government agencies examining aspects of the neighborhood near the tip of the Cameron Run watershed, which drains runoff from a 42-square-mile area, including Tysons Corner, into the Potomac River.

County officials have declined to speculate on the cause of last month's flooding. One possible contributor is a construction barge from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project that broke loose during the storm, blocking parts of Cameron Run. Some residents suspect the new bridge itself of obstructing storm water, a claim disputed by state officials. One widely discussed possibility -- that Lake Barcroft opened its floodgates -- was effectively ruled out last week by the county.

The other explanation is that silt, sediment and other byproducts from years of intensive development have simply turned Cameron Run into the equivalent of a coronary artery narrowed by plaque. It left the torrents of storm water with nowhere to go but into a community that has experienced episodes of flooding before, but nothing approaching the ferocity of last month's deluge.

"We're better off sitting down with the Corps and working things through," said county Public Works Director Jimmie Jenkins, declining to discuss possible causes.

The 1977 study, prepared by the consulting engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, proposed a 5,100-foot berm with a maximum height of 14.5 feet to protect the Huntington neighborhood, including Fenwick Drive and Arlington Terrace, the two residential streets hardest hit last month. Such a structure might have contained Cameron Run.

But the estimated cost, from $2.4 million to $3.2 million, or more than $10 million in today's dollars, was considered too steep. In a memo to then-Mount Vernon District Supervisor Warren I. Cikins, former county executive Robert W. Wilson said, "Current storm bond funds cannot support a project of such magnitude."

Officials said they have yet to find any indication in the minutes of the Board of Supervisors, then chaired by the late John F. "Jack" Herrity, that the study was discussed by the whole board.

Jenkins said the project would have been even costlier because the consultants' estimates did not take into account modifications to storm sewers that would have been necessary for the berm to be effective.

Parsons Brinckerhoff warned that there was no easy fix. "Although the cost is high, any solution to this extensive problem will be costly," the firm's 1977 study concluded.

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