The Growing Problem of Floods

Carolyn Arafat says flooding at her home gets worse with every storm. Above, after an inch of rain Nov. 16, water rose to two inches in the living room, despite sandbags.
Carolyn Arafat says flooding at her home gets worse with every storm. Above, after an inch of rain Nov. 16, water rose to two inches in the living room, despite sandbags. "There's something wrong with this picture," she said. (By Carolyn Arafat)

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

Carolyn Arafat has learned to dread routine rainstorms the way other people fear hurricanes. If there is rain in the forecast, up go the sandbags around her McLean house. She has called in for so many "rain days" at the hospital where she works that she worries she will be reprimanded.

"The sandbags have become a big attraction in the neighborhood," Arafat said. "I'm thinking of charging to look at them."

This is life at 7011 Meadowbrook Ave., where Arafat, her husband, Aiman, and their 11-year-old son have suffered ever-worsening flooding since moving into the yellow brick home two years ago. In the most recent incident, after only an inch of rain Nov. 16, water rose to five inches in the carport and to two inches in the living room, despite the sandbags.

The county has had more flooding this year than usual. But incidents such as the extensive damage caused in Huntington in June were triggered largely by excess rainfall.

The Arafats' troubles are more of the man-made variety. The primary culprit, Arafat and Fairfax County officials agree, is the intensive development around the Arafats' house, which lies just north of Chain Bridge Road and Westmoreland Street; five homes recently have been replaced or are about to be replaced by 11 much bigger homes, including one with 7,700 square feet of space. The construction has greatly expanded the area of impervious surfaces, sending ever more water onto the Arafats' property, which sits slightly below the homes around it.

The result goes well beyond the soggy yards or damp basements that some homeowners experience in the heaviest rains -- and far beyond anything the Arafats' 45-year-old home experienced with previous owners, according to neighbors. When McLean Board of Supervisors representative Joan DuBois (R-Dranesville) came to inspect the house after the November rainfall, the water was so high she had to be carried into the house by a worker.

"I've never seen anything like it. I was appalled," DuBois said.

The flooding is an extreme example of the challenges faced by Fairfax and other suburbs as they focus more growth in already developed areas such as McLean. Planners see "infill" development as preferable to sprawl, but squeezing in more -- and larger -- houses comes with consequences.

To Arafat's anger and frustration, the county is not fully equipped to deal with these consequences. In a November letter, a member of DuBois's staff explained that "there is no requirement for storm water detention with infill grading plans" since the development does not fall under the rules that apply to regular subdivisions. There are rules for maintaining the water quality of runoff to protect the Chesapeake Bay, but not for limiting the amount.

This has left Arafat, 47, an operating room nurse who moved to the United States from England 16 years ago, with no recourse. She has tried to enlist a land-use lawyer, but several have told her they do not want to take on the builders working in the neighborhood.

"Basically, I'm screwed legally. I've been told I have no case, but somehow I must have a case, because it's just so wrong," she said. "There's something wrong with this picture, and I don't know what to do anymore. . . . There's no accountability and no responsibility."

Land engineer Reid Dudley, who has done work for six of the new homes, denied that the development was the primary cause for the flooding but acknowledged that it has played a role. He said that the Arafats' house is poorly placed at the lowest point in the neighborhood and that the area's entire storm water system needs an overhaul.


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