Eunice Johnson, 87, doesn’t really care who the next president is. For her, Nov. 6 will influence far more important questions: like how many more times she’ll have to watch her small brick duplex fill up with water, and whether she’ll continue to depend on the kindness of strangers to move her soaked, sludge-covered belongings from the basement to the trash.
On election night, when most people are watching the national races, Johnson and a few hundred of her neighbors will be glued to the outcome of a little-known Fairfax County bond measure that would pay for one thing: a levee along the banks of Cameron Run in the Huntington area.
After repeated floods — some so bad that residents had to evacuate through water up to their necks — and after years of attempts to fund a solution, many see the referendum as the working-class neighborhood’s last chance.
If the bond measure fails, the only options left may be to live with the floods or tear the houses down and redevelop the area.
Those who want the measure to pass know the math doesn’t necessarily bode well. At $30 million, the levee would fix a problem that affects fewer than 200 modestly priced houses. But they are hoping that enough voters — at least half — will see it the way they do: Home to mostly young and blue-collar families and retirees, Huntington is one of the county’s last affordable enclaves. It should be preserved, and it alone should not be asked to bear the costs of a man-made problem that wasn’t nearly as bad when many residents moved in.
Studies have tied the flooding to development, namely the construction of the Capital Beltway, which was built on wetlands.
Perhaps most important, residents say the worsening floods aren’t just an expensive inconvenience; they’re also dangerous. Although no one was killed or seriously injured, at least a few people said they came terrifyingly close to being swept away by the water last year.
“I’m just crossing my fingers that enough people will want to help us,” Johnson said, sitting on a green sofa, surrounded by 20-gallon plastic tubs that she never unpacks, stroking her Pomeranian, Polly. “I’ve lived here since 1948, and I’d prefer to stay.”
The 11-foot-high levee would include a pumping station and would stretch a little more than a half-mile. It is the most cost-effective way to preserve the houses, and it is the option that most residents want, the county says.
The measure will appear on the ballot in Fairfax with three other bond proposals, although it is the only one that would fund a single project. The others include $75 million for parks, $55 million for public safety and $25 million for libraries.
A renewed push for a levee came after the latest flood, in September 2011, when roughly 160 homes, most built in the 1940s and ’50s, were deluged.
Among them was Stephanie Leedom’s on Arlington Terrace, a few blocks from Cameron Run. She remembers walking home after work from the Huntington Metro station with her 18-month-old son to find water rising toward her house. She ran home, grabbed a bag of clothes and her dog, and headed for the car. As she fled, the water deepened, soon reaching the car’s windows. “We actually floated,” Leedom, a single mother, recalled recently. “I’ll never forget the moment when the tires touched the ground again.”
A neighbor, Gayle Specht, was evacuated by a firefighter who carried Specht’s week-old son above his head to keep him dry. At one point, Specht lost her footing and began to drift, catching herself on a street sign. “I never thought that could happen,” she said.
When the water receded, Leedom went home to three feet of it in her basement and $20,000 in damage. It took months to clean up. When she bought her house the previous year, it wasn’t in the floodplain, she said, and no one told her about the last flood, in June 2006, which did even more damage.
Robert Cynkar, an Alexandria-based lawyer who is representing dozens of residents in a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Transportation over the 2006 flood, sees it this way: “Everyone benefits from the [Capital] Beltway, so why should such a small number of people have to bear the consequences of it?”
Alan Ruof, with the Huntington Community Association, said some of his neighbors who can afford to might try to move if the levee bond fails. He said that even for voters outside Huntington, the levee makes sense because it will eventually pay for itself in tax revenue and avoided costs. Taxpayers have covered several hundred thousand dollars in response and cleanup expenses as well as the price of numerous flood studies. A 2006 study alone cost $1 million.
But not everyone supports the levee. Among those who would rather see the area redeveloped is Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), one of three county county supervisors who voted in May against adding the referendum to the ballot. He said developers have approached the county with plans that would replace the neighborhood with a park and add affordable apartments nearby, just outside the floodplain and close to the Metro station.
If the county is going to issue more debt, Herrity said, it should be for schools. “The private sector has a solution that the county didn’t explore,” he said.
Other supervisors want the levee. County Board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said that Huntington should be preserved, as was promised when the Metro stop was created in the 1970s, and she said it has become clear that the state and federal governments won’t help pay. “This is the only way to get this funded,” Bulova said.
Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), whose district borders the area, said the county has “a moral obligation to protect the people in Huntington.”
No supervisors wanted to speculate about the levee bond’s chances. Although Fairfax County voters generally pass bonds by wide margins, those related to stormwater historically have been an exception. No one is advertising for or against the levee except the Huntington Community Association, which concedes that its limited efforts probably won’t make a difference.
Ruof said informed voters are likely to support the measure, but with all the attention being paid to the presidential race, he’s not sure how many people are studying local questions.
Johnson isn’t sure either. “I think a lot of people don’t realize there’s a problem here,” she said. “But for us, it’s a very big deal.”