Flash floods overtook streets throughout Alexandria and parts of Fairfax County and Southern Maryland early Sunday, as a month’s worth of rain fell in an hour. Residents reported blown manhole covers, flooded houses and sewage backflow.
Because of exceptional levels of moisture in the atmosphere, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning Saturday evening ahead of the cloudburst.
Thunderstorms then erupted late Saturday night in Southern Maryland before expanding over the Beltway and areas just to the west after midnight Sunday, where the Weather Service posted warnings for “life-threatening flash flooding.” Some areas received three to five inches of rain, causing “rapid rises on area creeks and flash flooding on area roadways,” the National Weather Service said.
The heaviest downpours concentrated in the zone from just east of Manassas into Alexandria, where rainfall totals were as high as four to five inches. The rain fell at exceptional rates, with as much as three inches in
30 minutes in southern Alexandria. In Alexandria, water levels on Backlick Run near Landmark shot up six feet in less than 30 minutes and nearly eight feet in less than an hour at Cameron Run and Eisenhower Avenue, according to the Weather Service.
Reagan National Airport received 2.62 inches of rain from the torrent, establishing a new daily rainfall record for Aug. 15.
Katie Waynick, who lives in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, said nearly every house on her block of 30 homes had water damage from Sunday morning’s flood. Having been through floods several times over the past three years, Waynick knew the signs: Backed up drains in the alley, rivers starting to rise. So, she started talking to her neighbors, who also were buckling down for a damaging storm.
Waynick, who runs the Twitter account @DrainALX, which advocates fixing infrastructure issues in Alexandria, added that “this is not a new thing.” She and her neighbors have been worried about flash floods since getting hit hard in 2019. Since then, many have done mitigation work in their homes. But Sunday morning’s storm even overwhelmed many of those efforts.
“People got everywhere from an inch to a foot in their homes,” Waynick said. “We’re just not equipped to handle normal big storms, let alone something like what happened last night,” she added, referring to the city’s aging infrastructure.
That sentiment echoed across Alexandria on Sunday. Will and Elizabeth Rodger have lived in Del Ray for nearly 30 years. This was the fifth time their house has flooded. They both argue the city must do more to address the recurring problem, including fixing drains to help 100-year-old houses weather the storms.
“How do you justify telling people, ‘Oh, you got 18 inches of water in your front yard? You’ll just have to deal with it until it goes down.’ ” Will Rodger said. “It’s inadequate.”
Elizabeth Rodger woke around midnight from the lightning. When she went to look outside her bedroom window, she could see only “sheets of rain.”
She eventually went out onto her doorstep, where she exchanged frustrated, knowing looks with neighbors doing the same early Sunday morning, yelling at cars trying to drive in the flood to get off the road.
After spending roughly $60,000 to repair and waterproof their house, the couple still got a foot of water in their basement and an estimated 18 inches in their yard — better than the eight feet they have gotten in previous floods.
They spent the day on Sunday sweeping the water out of the basement, cleaning up leftover mud and assessing the damage. Like many of their neighbors, they’ve learned not to leave valuable and vulnerable items in their unfinished basement.
Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said in an interview Sunday that he understands the impatience and the “devastating impact” of this “chronic challenge.” Still, he defended the city’s efforts, citing such projects as a $60 million plan to help combat flooding at Hooffs Run Culvert Bypass.
“But these are projects that are unfortunately very, very extensive infrastructure investments, and ones that take years to plan and execute,” Wilson said. “And I know that’s not an answer that any of our residents want to hear because these are big, big projects, and they want solutions tomorrow.”
Wilson also said that the increasing frequency of serious storms brought on by climate change will make the city’s efforts more urgent.
“This is the tip of the spear in climate,” he said.
The Alexandria Department of Transportation & Environmental Services, which deployed crews early Sunday morning for street and sewer emergencies, asked residents to report manhole issues to 311 and flooding issues to Alex311.
City officials said they received nearly 50 reports about basement backups, missing manhole covers and other flooding issues by the late afternoon. Alexandria police also responded to reports of abandoned cars on flooded roads.
As of about 10 a.m. Sunday morning, crews were also responding to “reports of flashing, dark and other traffic signal issues.” The department asked residents on Twitter to treat all “non-functioning lights” as four-way stops.
There were also reports of multiple trees down. According to city officials, stream flooding “damaged at least one culvert, undermining a sidewalk and retaining wall.”
In Fairfax County, some roads were still closed midmorning on Sunday because of downed wires or trees in the streets, according to county police.
A soggy weather pattern will continue over the region for the next several days, at least, as tropical moisture is pumped from the Gulf of Mexico up the Eastern Seaboard. The remnants of Tropical Storm Fred could impact the area during the middle of the week, which may again increase the chance for localized flooding.