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After years of talk — and flooding — Arlington residents demand fixes to storm drain system

Waverly Hills residents discuss recent flooding at an emergency meeting Friday with Arlington County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey, center left, and Vice Chair Libby Garvey, center right. (Patricia Sullivan/The Washington Post)

Alexandra Lettow was near tears as she described the losses her family suffered in Monday’s flooding to neighbors and county officials gathered at a home in Arlington’s Waverly Hills neighborhood.

Destroyed this time were the family’s appliances, the heating and air-conditioning system, the hot water heater, a couch, her son’s Xbox, a television and more. It was at least the seventh time the neighborhood had flooded in 19 years.

“We took a home loan out last year to repair the basement from the last flood,” Lettow said. “We have no more money, and we have mold growing down there.”

Arlington officials on Saturday said initial reports put uninsured residential and business losses at more than $4 million.

She and other residents say the county government has taken far too long to study the problem without making any fixes, especially in an era where climate change is triggering more intense and frequent storms.

Five years ago, several projects to fix Arlington’s aged storm drain system were on the capital improvements program list, only to quietly fall off without explanation. The repairs would have addressed Spout Run stream overflows in Waverly Hills.

“It’s been years since you started the plan to study this. It’s been a year since the latest study started. . . . If you don’t have enough information by now, you’ll never have it,” Janice Alder told Arlington County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey and Vice Chair Libby Garvey at the last-minute Friday gathering. “Why aren’t you doing at least what you can now?”

Residents assess damage a day after deluge

County officials say the repairs are complicated and expensive, and required feasibility studies had not been completed. The volume of rain that fell Monday would have overwhelmed even the most modern drainage system, they noted, and those planned repairs would not have helped residents elsewhere in the county, who were also affected by the deluge.

“This has not been a matter of slow-walking the solution,” Dorsey told the riled-up group of Waverly Hills residents. “We want the best possible solution. Once it’s ready, resources will not be an issue.”

His response did not sit well with homeowners who have repeatedly paid tens of thousands of dollars to tear out and replace drywall, furnaces and the contents of their garages and basements.

“I get that it’s complicated,” said Carl Lettow, Alexandra’s husband. “Tackle something! Put some sandbags out. . . . I want to see real results.”

The county declared a state of emergency on Wednesday in preparation for seeking state and federal disaster relief money to help clean up from Monday’s storm. Officials said the government will consider buying out property to serve as retaining areas, accelerating capital improvement projects and issuing a bond to help residents recover some of their lost costs. The county is also investigating whether a new state law intended to provide tax relief for victims of repeated flooding can be applied in Arlington.

Dorsey said Saturday that it is “quite frankly a blessed miracle that no one was killed or even seriously injured” during the rain and flash flood. He said the county has been “actively planning capital investments to increase the capacity of our aging storm water system,” but he acknowledged that the costs probably will fall primarily on property owners.

The cause of the flooding was the same all over the region: too much water for the storm water system to handle, said Elizabeth Thurber, the manager of Arlington’s storm-water-infrastructure program.

In the mid-20th century, when Arlington was built, developers paved over a network of streams that have never gone away, and which rise during heavy downpours.

“This is not a storm drain problem, it’s a watershed-scale problem,” County Board member Katie Cristol (D) said in an interview.

Short-term solutions are needed, Dorsey told the Waverly Hills residents on Friday, but he warned that “when this happens again, you will look at us like feckless idiots because sandbags are not going to do the job.”

Monday’s rain rivaled heaviest downpours in D.C. history

Residents are growing tired of the routine disasters. Insurers are rejecting claims for those who don’t already have flood insurance, many say, and even those with flood insurance find that it often does not cover the contents of their homes.

When homeowners in the Westover neighborhood placed waterlogged debris in the streets for pickup after Monday’s storm, a trash hauler under contract with the government distributed orange fliers saying the trash was not bundled properly, adding insult to injury.

Arlington County officials later apologized, blaming the notices on the contractor, and promised additional trash pickups through July 21.

Parag Nathaney, who lives in a below-grade ground-floor condo along Columbia Pike, went to the weekly open-door meeting with a County Board member Monday evening to describe the flooding he experienced.

He said that board member Erik Gutshall (D), after listening to him, said: “Perhaps you should reconsider where you live.”

“On the day of the disaster!” Nathaney said. “I think at that moment, that was insensitive and uncalled for.”

Gutshall said he wasn’t trying to be flippant, but Nathaney wanted assurances his home would never flood again. Given the changing climate and the high cost of rebuilding a storm water system in a densely populated county, it’s more realistic to ask how to make structures “flood-ready,” Gutshall said.

In Westover, Wendy Naus wore work gloves and mud-spattered boots on Wednesday as she threaded her way through her backyard — past the kiddie pool where she was attempting to sanitize her 6-year-old son’s toys, past the ruined kitchen garden, past the oddly placed shed with its concrete footing still intact.

“That shed doesn’t belong there,” she said ruefully, pointing out the corner where it once was.

A river of water, mud and debris broke through her backyard fence on Monday, according to Naus, sending lawn furniture and the shed across the yard and battering down the fences of neighbors until 14th Street North became 14th Stream North.

“Our basement filled to the ceiling,” she said. “One window blew out from the inside.”

Naus said it was the first time she had experienced flooding since moving into the house 18 months ago.

Her neighbors have experienced it multiple times — and she said she expects such storms to become more common. She runs a nonprofit organization that lobbies for science funding.

“Ironic, isn’t it?” she said.

Cortlynn Stark contributed to this report.

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