Stemming the flood in Old Town

Stemming the flood in Old Town
(File Photo)

By Melissa Quinn 

As communities in New Jersey and New York pick up the pieces following Hurricane Sandy, towns up and down the East Coast face the realization that it could’ve been them — and Alexandria’s no different.

Port City residents and business owners are no strangers to the rising waters at the foot of King Street, prone to flooding with the onset of heavy rain and storm surges. In preparation for redevelopment along the waterfront, the city commissioned a flood mitigation survey to address the issue and offer solutions to curb the overflow.

Work began in October 2006, and following the survey’s completion, experts outlined a series of recommendations later added to the waterfront redevelopment plan — including changes to the area’s infrastructure as well as suggestions for residents and businesses owners within the flood zone.

“We continue to look for ways with mitigation and outreach to the community to combat damages to flooding to both humans and property,” said Emily Baker, a city engineer with transportation and environmental services.

The foot of King Street suffers from flooding at least once each month, according to the survey. And experts predict the Potomac will rise substantially within the next century, which prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to require any new buildings along the river to set its first floor at or above the 100-year floodplain — the area running along Jones Point, King Street, The Strand and Union Street.

The floodplain’s boundaries are based on a flood rising 10.2 feet higher than sea level, which is expected to only occur every century. However, the waterfront plan calls for just protecting against a flood at 6 feet higher than sea level.

To flood-proof buildings below that mark, city officials have turned to drainage improvements, a combined floodwall and pedestrian walkway, and the incorporation of more berms into the landscape — plans the city hopes to move forward with over the next few years, Baker said. A timeframe will be crafted after plans for the waterfront are confirmed.

In addition, officials want to improve the city’s sandbag program and encourage property owners to be proactive, such as relocating valuable to areas of their homes not susceptible to rising waters and flood-proofing their buildings.

But the plan has not enjoyed smooth sailing. Waterfront plan work group members concluded the proposed mitigation efforts failed to properly address the amount of development proposed along the river and worried about possible damage to historical buildings.

“The continued angst was about this degree of development in a floodplain with appropriate flood measures to maintain accessibility to the river,” said Bob Wood, a former member of the defunct committee.


Improvements on the way


Even without a firm timetable, about $750,000 for improvements has been incorporated into the fiscal 2013 capital improvement plan. The money is designated for completing the final design and construction services at The Strand and King Street.

The city’s waterfront commission has advocated for floodwalls between Duke and Queen streets as well as floodgates and a pumping station.

Though officials continue to discuss flooding, little has been done to increase preparedness should a storm of Sandy’s magnitude hit the Port City. Even if implemented tomorrow, proposed flood mitigation would not offer much protection for businesses and residences along the waterfront — the improvements cover just nuisance flooding as opposed to an event caused by a major storm.

“At the end of this plan, there will still be flooding at the foot of King Street,” Wood said. “We’re still going to have water down there.”

Officials, however, argue taking steps necessary to protect the city from a major hurricane would be cost prohibitive given the rarity of such an event.

“It’s expensive to plan for an event that might not happen but once every 100 to 500 years,” Baker said. “That’s not to say we wouldn’t like to protect the city from any type of flooding, but the low-lying nature of the city makes it very challenging.”

Officials estimate each flood costs taxpayers $32,000, and the proposed improvements would drastically reduce the price tag.

But to protect the Port City from a storm of Sandy’s magnitude, the city would need to build large floodwalls from Duke to Queen streets — and possibly farther north. Not only would the walls be an eyesore in the historic district and a hindrance to water access, officials said, but the cost of constructing the walls also is substantial compared to storm frequency.

“Those recommendations were not the types of things that the community felt were appropriate to maintain the history of the town,” she said. “The study didn’t find those measures to be cost effective.”