During the last few weeks, Fairfax restaurateur Naresh Bhatt has been watching the TV reports about hurricane devastation in Florida: the splintered homes, downed trees, rising waters and flood-soaked businesses.
The images have brought back his own nightmarish memories of the days after Hurricane Isabel. Isabel tore through the Atlantic region one year ago Saturday leaving 40 dead, millions of people without power and a wide swath of devastation in its wake.
Isabel was responsible for $1.6 billion in damage statewide -- more than $10 million of that in Alexandria and Fairfax County after a nine-foot-high wall of water surged through Old Town and the Belle View neighborhood of Fairfax along the George Washington Parkway, damaging 2,200 homes and more than 60 businesses.
Watching the storm coverage on television in recent days, Bhatt said, he was reminded of the first time he was able to enter his basement restaurant, Dishes of India, after days of pumping out floodwater last September. Everything -- down to his trademark pink tablecloths -- was covered with a thick black-brown sludge.
"I was feeling the pain for the people in Florida," said Bhatt, 38, a native of New Delhi who has co-owned the Belle View restaurant with his father since 1997. "I was thinking about what happened for us. It's the same pain."
A year after Isabel, life is just about returning to normal for the many local residents and business owners who were turned out of their homes for weeks and months after the storm. In the Belle View condominium complex, one of the areas hit hardest by the flooding, workers are putting the finishing touches on new paint in the hallways and are expected to be finished by Thanksgiving.
The businesses along Union Street in Old Town and in the Belle View Shopping Center that were forced to close after the hurricane have reopened, including Bhatt's. It flung open its freshly painted doors in June, much to the delight of its many fans in the neighborhood.
State and local agencies have issued a blizzard of "after action" reports and paperwork critiquing their response to the hurricane after the public safety and cleanup efforts were hampered by antiquated equipment and poor communication among emergency responders, local governments and utilities.
"A lot of folks don't realize that the amounts of water we saw from Hurricane Isabel was unprecedented and unpredicted -- the Potomac River rose higher than it's ever been in recorded history," said Mark Penn, coordinator of Alexandria's office of emergency management. "In emergency management, people manage by past experience. What a lot of people are doing now is playing catch-up."
Some of the changes have been as simple as the City of Alexandria working with the U.S. Geological Survey to install its own electronic gauge to monitor river levels near the city dock. It previously had to rely on data from Georgetown.
Fairfax, on the other hand, has approved some pricey fixes to avoid a repeat of the chaotic days that followed Isabel, recently unveiling a state-of-the-art $3 million command post at its Government Center equipped with laptop computers.
In March, Fairfax Water (formerly Fairfax County Water Authority) decided to spend up to $60 million on emergency generators to avoid the kind of post-Isabel breakdown that left 1.2 million customers in Northern Virginia without reliable drinking water for three days.
The county, which issued its post-Isabel assessment just last week, said its response to the hurricane was a "comparative success." But it was complicated by extensive power outages and the inadequate emergency operations center, where on the night of the storm more than 150 staffers crammed into an aging former elementary school building for briefings.
The report said that a larger storm would have taxed its resources and staff -- some of whom were on the verge of being worked to the point of "burning out" -- beyond current capabilities.
Fairfax Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland, whose Mount Vernon district includes the neighborhoods most ravaged by the floods, said he was concerned about the report's assessment of county staffing levels. The county needs to develop a plan to add temporary staff or volunteers in emergencies, he said.
"In terms of whether we have the capacity to handle a more serious storm, that is of immediate concern and needs to be addressed," he said.
Hyland also said the county needs to further explore ways of protecting the New Alexandria and Belle View neighborhoods, where many homes were destroyed after the storm's surge overwhelmed the county's dike system. A proposed upgrade was dismissed as too costly.
In the wake of Isabel, the 2,200 residents of the Belle View condominium complex were forced to take out more than $3 million in loans to pay for the devastation that enveloped all 65 of its buildings and destroyed 17 basement condominiums.
The debt has meant additional monthly fees, which have been a financial burden to some residents, according to resident Stephen Snell, a consultant.
"It was a nightmare for everybody, and we all ended up paying for it out of our own pockets," Snell said.
Local business owners have been hit hard, too. Bill Reagan, the director of Alexandria's Small Business Development Center, helped obtain $1.8 million in low-interest disaster relief loans for 30 local businesses. But many still had hefty out-of-pocket expenses. Bhatt estimates his personal losses at $70,000.
Fay Hobbs-Carter, co-owner of The Christmas Attic on South Union Street in Old Town, says her street has yet to fully bounce back. The water inundated the first floor of her business, causing $500,000 in damage.
"It affected business in a big way in Alexandria," Hobbs-Carter said.
Snell, however, saw a hopeful sign in Fairfax's recent preparations for remnants of Hurricane Charley last month.
Belle View residents had long groused that Fairfax officials gave them little or no warning of the flooding about to beset the area during Isabel, even though computer calculations had shown as early as the Thursday morning before the storm that massive flooding was inevitable.
As Charley approached, Fairfax sent up variable message boards around the Belle View neighborhood warning of the storm's arrival and directing residents to the county Web site for news.
Neighborhood residents signed up for an automatic e-mailing list called "Riverwatch" that will send updates on river levels and storm conditions. The county has also urged residents living in the low-lying area to buy weather radios.
"To their credit, [Fairfax officials] have taken the flood from last year and evaluated their response and made changes and become more responsive," Snell said.
"Everybody can second-guess, but the important thing is now everybody has this experience under their belt and we are ready for the next time."