Threat of flooding continues in D.C. area

Hunter Willis of Washington, D.C. and his friend Mierka Ross of Willmington, De. make their way up the rain covered steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Hunter Willis of Washington, D.C. and his friend Mierka Ross of Willmington, De. make their way up the rain covered steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (Ricki Carioti - The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010

At the end of a residential street all too familiar with flooding, a Fairfax County police officer parked his cruiser Saturday and watched the water.

Watched as it inched up the grassy barrier separating Cameron Run from Fenwick Drive. Watched as it receded. Watched knowing that other officers were doing the same elsewhere and would do so through the weekend.

Forecasters warn that the threat of flooding across the metropolitan region will remain even if the rain ends as expected Sunday night. Total rainfall, which began Friday, is expected to reach 1 1/2 to 2 inches. On Saturday, some areas saw minor flooding even as the threat of melting snow at higher elevations threatened to funnel more water into the already swollen Potomac River.

"Today is easy," said Mark Penn, emergency management coordinator for Alexandria, where parts of King Street flooded Saturday morning. "Tomorrow is going to get a little harder."

Not far from where he stood, sidewalks were littered with broken branches and debris left by water pushed onto the street by high tide. A barrel that had been spit onto the sidewalk and was labeled "waste kitchen grease only" bore a Winchester, Va., address. Some passersby wondered how far the water had carried it.

Penn said the morning flood was minor, more of a "nuisance," but emergency workers were bracing for the possibility that it could get worse. He said the Swift Water Rescue team was put in service as a precaution. Sandbags were also being handed out to residents and business owners.

In Maryland, about 40 volunteers stood for hours in the rain, piling sandbags for the C&O Canal. At the Historic Tavern at Great Falls, about 15 volunteers heeded the call for help, and at Lockhouse 6 in Bethesda, about 25 volunteers showed up, moving 600 sandbags. "Floodwaters don't have a chance against us," Matthew Logan, president of C&O Canal Trust, said afterward.

The rain is expected to continue north, and forecasters warn that it will cause flooding along the coast and make some streets and highways in Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Providence, R.I., impassable. Areas around Iowa have also seen rivers swell to moderate flood stages.

The weather is being blamed for at least one death: A woman was swept into water along Maple Fork near Bradley, W.Va.

Kevin Witt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said that the D.C. metropolitan region experienced some small-stream flooding Saturday, and he said the Potomac River at Wisconsin Avenue could hit flood stage, which is seven feet. But no "extreme flooding" was expected, he said.

Residents in the Huntington neighborhood where the Fairfax officer stood watch could only hope that they wouldn't see a repeat of the flood that damaged homes there in 2006. During that storm, Karen Callaham was in her basement doing laundry at the time and didn't give the water at her feet much thought. Then she walked upstairs and opened her front door. "It looked like the Potomac River," she said. "You couldn't see my chain-link fence."

Within 30 minutes, she said, her basement filled with six feet of water.

On Saturday, a few neighbors moved their cars to safer ground. Callaham, however, took no precautions.

"What can you do?" she said. "Just hope for the best. What's going to happen is going to happen. There's nothing I can do to stop it. When the water starts coming, no one can stop it."

A few blocks away on Fenwick Drive, Kathy Prunty had a similar attitude. Her newly finished basement was destroyed by the flood in 2006 and her house was damaged in a fire in 2008.

"I'm hoping," she said, "new year, new luck."

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