By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Parts of Alexandria experienced flash flooding after more than 2.5 inches of rain fell in the city in less than an hour on the night of July 23.
The Parkfairfax and Del Ray neighborhoods were hit hardest by the floods, but residents in Rosemont and West Alexandria also experienced surging stormwater, as the city’s infrastructure was quickly overwhelmed by the intensity of the rainfall. The area remained under a flash flood warning until 2:30 a.m. on July 24.
This is the second time in two years that a major storm has swept through Alexandria, flooding streets, cars and basements and leaving residents concerned and frustrated with the state of the city’s stormwater management. A month’s worth of rain hit Alexandria in about an hour on July 8, 2019.
“Imagine a funnel that you’re pouring a gallon milk jug in and imagine, instead of pouring it out [over time], you dump the whole milk jug all at once,” Bill Skrabak, deputy director of infrastructure and environmental quality, said. “… You have all that water trying to get through that, whether it’s an inlet or a pipe, and it just can’t handle it and it just starts backing up.”
On July 23, the city’s rain gauges measured a minimum of 2.5 to 3.25 inches of rain fell on the city within an hour, according to Skrabak.
Some residents reported even higher estimates. Streets in Old Town, Del Ray and Northern Alexandria became impassable. More than a foot of water filled the 200 block of East Monroe Avenue. An eyewitness video from a Parkfairfax resident showed cars submerged in water and drivers exiting through the windows.
City staff is still assessing the volume of service calls received from residents related to the flood but so far has counted 75 flood-related service calls since July 23, Skrabak said. The city received 90 service calls related to the storm in 2019.
During the July 23 flooding, the Alexandria Fire Department responded to six calls related to people stranded in high water, according to AFD.
Several residents experienced flooding in their basements. Mike Putzu, a resident who lives in the Brookville Townhomes complex near Holmes Run Trail, realized his basement was flooding when he went to check on his cat and dog. The well in his back yard had overflowed, resulting in gallons of water pouring through his basement window.
“I was able to get the window back in place for a few moments for me to run back outside with a Home Depot bucket and just empty the well myself in the middle of the thunderstorm, or else all of my stuff was going to get destroyed,” Putzu said.
Another resident, Raquel Davis, experienced flooding for the first time since moving into her Rosemont home with her husband in January.
“When we bought our house, we knew we were in a flood zone, but we had no idea what that meant,” Davis said.
Davis’ backyard filled up with water, which quickly started seeping into her house. Recycling bins, trash bins and one neighbor’s canoe floated down the road as the water rose in the street, Davis said. After the rain stopped, Davis’ husband and neighbors used trash bins to bail water out of their homes.
According to Davis’ neighbors, the area has been hit by intense flooding three times since 2006: once in 2006, once in 2019 and once this past week.
Some residents are still recovering from the impacts of the 2019 flash floods.
“It’s crazy. There’s nothing you can do to keep up because the sewers here don’t work,” Del Ray resident Mary Burner said.
Residents expressed frustration with the city’s response to the flood and management of its stormwater infrastructure.
“You’re like, ‘Well what are you going to do to prevent this in the future?’ And they’re like, ‘We’re gonna hope it doesn’t rain like that again,’” Putzu said.
“The infrastructure just isn’t working in this area,” Burner said. “We have two drainages in our alley and if you go out there when it’s raining … it’s like a swimming pool.”
Alexandria has about 185 miles of storm sewer pipe, 26 stream miles and about 13,500 structures, such as inlets or pieces of infrastructure. The city inspects and maintains that expansive infrastructure and performs maintenance in areas that have become degraded due to age or wear and tear, Skrabak said.
“We are regularly assessing. When we get calls for flooding, we go out and take a look,” Skrabak said. “If there are simple things that can be improved that are happening, we try to do that.”
The city has long-term plans to improve its stormwater system both in terms of the quantity of water it can handle and the quality of the stormwater that empties into local bodies of water.
“We’ve done a study, and we have about $100 million planned over the next 10 years in stormwater improvement projects,” City Manager Mark Jinks said. “Generally, what they’ll do is create additional capacity or they will slow the water, trade capacity by creating a holding tank.”
The city also implemented a stormwater utility fee in 2018 that was designed to provide a revenue source for infrastructure improvements. The fee is estimated to bring in about $12 million per year, according to Jinks.
Skrabak admitted that the city has to balance broader stormwater infrastructure improvement in a way that is worth the investment. A system that’s only used once every few years isn’t as appealing from a budget perspective as one that will get continued use.
Even with infrastructure improvements, flooding events like the one that occurred on July 23 could remain a challenge for Parkfairfax, Del Ray and other flood zones, according to Skrabak.
“That’s a pretty unusual event with a high intensity,” Skrabak said. “When you do those improvements it helps, but it may not have entirely prevented those localized flooding areas in the city.”
However, city officials and residents agreed that, with storms like this occurring more frequently, there needs to be a more concerted effort to address the issue in some way.
“The challenge is that climate change is increasing the amount of moisture in the air, the intensity of the storms, and that is something that’s true not just in Alexandria,” Jinks said.
“We have to budget to deal with areas that have isolated problems, but as these events become more and more frequent, I think there’s a larger conversation we need to have about how do we size the infrastructure to deal with this,” Mayor Justin Wilson said.
There is some aid that residents living in flood zones can utilize. The city has a backflow preventor program that helps residents pay for devices that can prevent sewage backup. Residents can also take part in FEMA’s Community Service Rating program, which reduces the cost of flood insurance.
But for some residents, the damage has already been done.
“Some of [my neighbors] are thinking about moving,” Burner said. “They’re just done; they can’t do this. … Everybody’s just frustrated. We don’t know what to do. We don’t what avenue to take anymore.”
Denise Dunbar contributed to this story.