Updated: Alexandria prepares for impacts of Hurricane Florence

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The intersection of Union and King streets floods Tuesday at high tide at around 10 a.m. (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)
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By Alexa Epitropoulos| aepitropoulos@alextimes.com

Hurricane Florence update:

Hurricane Florence’s five-day forecast as of Wednesday at 11 a.m. (Photo courtesy National Weather Service/NOAA)

National Weather Service’s forecast at 11 a.m. on Wednesday showed Hurricane Florence making landfall on the South Carolina and North Carolina coasts on Friday morning, with impacts to the Virginia coast. The latest projection shows Hurricane Florence tracking to the south and traveling through South Carolina, with the largest impacts set to arrive Friday at 8 a.m.

Though the impact of the hurricane for Northern Virginia is still unclear, the latest forecast predicts 1 to 2 inches of rain and a 5 to 10 percent chance of hurricane force winds in the region.

Mandatory evacuations are underway in the Carolinas and Virginia coasts.

Visit the National Weather Service’s website for the most recent information.

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As Hurricane Florence continues on a collision course for the South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia coasts, businesses in already flooded Old Town are preparing for the worst.
Old Town began to flood over the weekend after several inches of rain elevated the Potomac River. The water has continued to rise on the waterfront each day since, particularly at high tide, at times blocking access to businesses on the waterfront, The Strand and Union Street.

As Florence’s path to the Carolina and Virginia coastlines became more certain, the City of Alexandria began distributing about 2,500 sandbags on Monday between 7:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. The city didn’t hand out additional sandbags on Tuesday and a city spokeswoman said Transportation & Environmental Services would continue to monitor the weather to determine if more were needed.

Meanwhile, most events slated to happen this weekend, including the King Street Art Festival, the Art League’s Ice Cream Bowl fundraiser and others, have been rescheduled due to the impending weather.

Businesses on the waterfront, including Chadwicks on The Strand, are dealing with the worst of Old Town’s flooding. Chadwicks owner Trae Lamond said his restaurant is taking all possible preventative measures, including sealing the doors and windows and moving furniture and bottles of liquor upstairs.

“When Hurricane Isabel came and it swept through the bar, an [inspector] with the Health Department of Virginia said ‘Any bottle that touched the water, even if they’re sealed, you have to trash them.’ And we have $20,000 worth of liquor here at all times, so we’re putting that upstairs so we don’t have to deal with that,” Lamond said.

Lamond said on Monday that the water was about a foot and a half shy of the restaurant’s windows and he worried that the water could come inside with Tuesday’s high tide.
If the water reaches the interior of the restaurant, it could mean significant damage.

“It depends on how much water. Anything drywall would have to be ripped [out] and replaced. We’re going to put as much furniture upstairs as we can. There’s coolers that can damaged, refrigerators that can be damaged that aren’t going to be lifted up a flight of stairs for this,” Lamond said.

Lamond said he’s planning to keep Chadwicks open as long as he can.

“We can only do what we can do. I’m not going to prevent a hurricane or flood by talking about it, so we’re going to block the doors, windows, get everything up on the second floor we can and hope for the best,” he said.

Corey Smedley, the city’s emergency manager, said Alexandria is prepared to handle extreme weather.

“The City of Alexandria is a flood-prone area and we are, internally within the city, collaborating to ensure that all of our agencies are prepared to support the consequences of what a hurricane would bring. That’s flooding, potential storm surge, wind gusts, power outages and the like,” Smedley said.

Smedley said the city’s emergency operations plan is in line with FEMA and the state and that it involves collaborating with numerous organizations, including federal partners, utility companies and the National Weather Service. The city is also taking preventative measures, which involves everything from arborers for the city’s Parks, Recreation & Cultural Activities department assessing and cutting back trees and shrubs, which can prove hazardous in windy and rainy conditions, to T&ES doing cursory storm drain maintenance.

Smedley said the city is also working to prepare staff, particularly first responders, to address all that a storm might bring. Communication is also a large part of the city’s plan, whether that’s through the city’s email eNews system, wireless emergency alerts, radio, TV, robo-calls or, in the worst case scenario, using vehicles with PA systems to get the word out. He said the city also has volunteers that can get out the word if electronic methods are deemed inadequate.

If the city determines that some areas have to be evacuated, Smedley anticipates the call will be made within 48 hours of Hurricane Florence’s anticipated strike in the area.

“Right now it’s predicted it will hit land in Virginia around early morning Friday, which gives us about 72 to 96 hours [as of Tuesday]. Subject matter experts would tell you if you need to do an evacuation, you need 48 hours. We have a few days to look at the data and we will make a decision based on if it’s reasonable that we will be hit, as well as giving the citizenry time,” Smedley said on Tuesday morning.

Smedley said residents can expect the same level of service from first responders and from city employees at this time. He said residents should, however, anticipate some delays when inclement weather hits due to a higher than average volume of calls.

“If it gets to a certain point that it’s not safe to put people in harm’s way, several steps have to occur to do that. We don’t believe that’s going to be the case in this part of Northern Virginia,” Smedley said.

“With that said, what you can expect to receive is the resources you can always expect to see, whether that’s first responders, public services like transportation, parks, code personnel, our 911 system, our health department … with the understanding that the delay time would be much longer than it would normally be.”

Smedley said the city is continuing to monitor the weather and to prepare staff as well as they can ahead of time.

“The worst case scenario is if we get all of the aspects of what a hurricane can bring – if we get significant wind gusts, if we get storm surges, if we get significant flooding, we may have to shelter more people than we would like to. We may have to call for some form of evacuation,” Smedley said.

Smedley said residents should have batteries, food and water for three days and be prepared to help neighbors who aren’t able to get supplies. He said the best thing residents can do is to act on information from local agencies.

“The biggest point is once we give you that information, whoever you are – business or resident – act on it because we’re out there doing our best to make sure we’re minimizing the impact and, if you don’t listen and create yourself to be a victim, that exacerbates the issue and no one wants that to occur,” Smedley said.

As of Tuesday morning, most King Street businesses east of South Lee Street were prepared with sandbags, either sealing their doors and windows or keeping them
within reach on the sidewalk.

Scott Shaw, principal of Alexandria Restaurant Partners, which owns Vola’s Dockside Grill and Mia’s Italian Kitchen and manages Virtue Feed & Grain, all within a block of the riverfront, said the restaurants are preparing as well as they can.

Shaw, who has owned two restaurants in Miami, is well acquainted with what hurricanes can mean for a business.

“There’s not a lot you can do. You can’t move a restaurant, so what can you do? If we have reason to believe there will be above average wind or flooding, we’ll try to move furniture or equipment to higher ground. We’re not expecting that right now,” Shaw said on Monday. “We’re going to be really closely monitoring the forecast. … The question is if the weather is going to push water up the Potomac that’s really significant. That could go into the restaurant.”

Shaw said the waterfront has experienced more incidents of flooding this year. He anticipates it’s happened five or six times so far.

“I think the bigger question is people are probably asking ‘OK, can you remind us what the [city’s] flood mitigation plan is going to be and when it goes into effect?’” Shaw said. “It’s probably the fifth or sixth time [this year]. Maybe it’s three or four, but that’s still a lot.”

Shaw said, no matter what the outcome is, he expects his restaurants will outlast the storms.

“On the walls of Vola’s, there’s a picture of the intersection of Union and King from 1901, flooded worse than it is today, so this is not new and this is not Global Warming. The Potomac River floods,” he said. “If you open a waterfront restaurant, it comes with the territory.”

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