By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
When the street started to flood outside Avantika Singh’s Del Ray home on Saturday night, she thought she was prepared for the worst. After the flooding that hit Alexandria last year, she invested thousands of dollars to buy a flood gate, flood bags and a new sump pump, and also had broken sewer lines repaired.
According to Singh, it made little difference on Saturday.
“Incredibly fast torrents of storm water came rushing into my basement stairwell and buckled the back door. I had sandbags that went flying because of the water’s gushing pressure,” Singh said.
Singh and her elderly mother, who lives next door and whose basement also flooded, worked to empty more than five feet of water in the stairwell leading to her basement. At its highest, Singh’s basement had about two feet of water, which ruined her furniture, dryer and HVAC system.
Meanwhile, Laura Taylor, a Rosemont resident who lives near the King Street Metro station and was out of town during the storm, watched through her Ring camera as her main floor sunroom, kitchen and living room filled with water.
“I have had a hard time even buying furniture for my home because I was worried it would flood again, and it’s really discouraging that the city improvements that were supposed to help mitigate this didn’t end up making a difference in this flood,” Taylor said.
According to Yon Lambert, director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, last weekend’s storm lasted 5.7 hours and, at its peak intensity, dropped 4.11 inches of rain in about 40 minutes near George Mason Elementary School. Most other areas of the city received between 1.5 inches and 3.5 inches in that same amount of time.
Storms like the one on Saturday night and Sunday and subsequent flooding is becoming a familiar refrain to city residents. This was the fifth time in two years the city has been slammed by flooding from high intensity storms, which has mired cars in rivers of rainwater and caused sewage to spew into residents’ homes.
While the city has recently invested more money into long-term capital improvements to its aging, overwhelmed stormwater infrastructure, City Council did not fund the largest flood mitigation projects on the table when it voted in early July to disperse the first round of money from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Residents are left wondering, with a combination of frustration and exhaustion, “But what about the next storm?”
“It is unbelievable how badly the city drainage infrastructure has failed us,” Singh said. “I am beyond angry and frustrated, close to being numb. We don’t know what to do.”
Singh was not alone in her frustration. Alex Snyder, a photojournalist who lives in Del Ray, was so struck by the pandemonium occurring outside his condo that he grabbed his camera and got to work.
“I was the former photographer [for] the Peace Corps. I’ve travelled the world doing my work, and I never thought I’d have to step outside and that would be where I’m working, basically at the doorstep of climate change,” Snyder said.
Mayor Justin Wilson said he understood the community’s frustrations and that the city is looking at ways to accelerate the execution of its stormwater projects.
“People shouldn’t have to live that way. They are perfectly valid frustrations that they are voicing because nobody should have to live like this where they’re concerned that their entire house is going to be destroyed every time it rains,” Wilson said. “… We’re exploring every way we can to accelerate this work and try to get it done as quickly as possible.”
Wilson also attributed the increasingly frequent and intense storms to climate change, as well as long deferred investments in city infrastructure.
However, residents and city officials both said the frustration stems from the inherent discrepancy between the urgent needs of residents and the time necessary for the city to implement projects that would address those needs.
In recent months, the city has taken steps to invest in its stormwater infrastructure, but, due to the scope of these projects, the payoff for residents will not be felt for years to come, according to Lambert.
“They’re very complicated and require an exceptional amount of design and utility coordination before we can actually deliver the solution itself,” Lambert said. “We know that that’s a hard message to deliver. People want solutions now, and as someone who has also flooded and my basement floods in these situations, I understand entirely where people are coming from.”
As part of the $2.66 billion 10-year capital improvement budget that City Council approved in May, $267 million will go toward stormwater improvement projects. Of that money, $27.5 million has been set aside for stormwater improvement projects in FY2022. In February, council approved an increase in the city’s annual stormwater fee, doubling it from $140 to $280. According to the city, the increase would provide Alexandria with an additional $254 million for capacity projects and flood mitigation measures over the next 10 years.
The city is making large scale investments in its stormwater infrastructure, but with that large scale investment comes lengthy planning, design and construction processes. Wilson pointed to a $60 million project that the city hopes will improve Hoofs Run, which bears “the lion’s share of the impact,” according to Wilson.
“That [$60 million] is basically an elementary school … and think about how long it takes us to plan, fund and build a new elementary school – that’s the better part of a decade,” Wilson said. “This is the challenge for us: How do we take projects that would otherwise take us a long time to plan, engineer and, ultimately, make a reality and try to do them a lot quicker?”
Katie Waynick, a community activist who runs the @DrainALX Twitter account which advocates for addressing the city’s infrastructure needs, acknowledged the necessary scope and timeline of these projects, yet criticized the process around how these projects have been scheduled.
“In every way possible, this problem is so big that we can’t talk about this without acknowledging that [the city] really can’t do anything tomorrow. I think a lot of people, they like to leave that out of the conversation,” Waynick said.
“My frustration with that end of it is that some of these designs, some of these areas, there should have been money funded earlier to have some of these studies done and designs rendered so that when funding was available, you could break ground,” Waynick added.
As the city prepares and plans for its larger scale capacity and flood mitigation projects, Lambert said part of the city’s plan to address localized stormwater issues involves smaller scale spot improvement projects. Some of these short-term fixes have been accelerated and expanded due to an influx in funding from the ARPA.
As part of the first tranche of ARPA funding, about $1.9 million will go toward spot improvements and about $3.8 million will go toward resiliency improvements to the existing system, such as maintenance and cleaning of Hoofs Run.
In terms of spot improvements, the ARPA funding will help accelerate projects along Mount Vernon Avenue, in the Hume Avenue storm sewer bypass and inlets near Hume and Commonwealth avenues. The city is also waiting on a federal application for $420,000 in additional funding for storm sewer draining and flooding improvements at Clifford Avenue, Fulton Street and Manning Street. According to Lambert, in many cases, the ARPA funding has allowed these projects to be moved up by a year or two.
Additionally, the city announced prior to the storm on Saturday that, starting on Aug. 30, residents can apply for up to $5,000 for flood mitigation measures as part of the city’s flood mitigation pilot grant program. Residents who can demonstrate that they have been impacted by any flooding events as far back as 2019 will receive funding to make flood mitigation improvements on their property, such as flood proofing windows and doors.
“I think the point that we are increasingly trying to emphasize to residents is that we all play a role in this, and you can do some things on your own and on your property that can help prepare you for future climate change-induced flooding while the city is also approaching this and attacking it from multiple levels in the built environment,” Lambert said.
However, for many residents, these short-term and property owner-based solutions do not address the larger problems with the city’s infrastructure.
“Spot projects will help people – there’s no doubt that they will – but Saturday reinforced for me that for some of these areas, you have got to address underlying capacity before spot projects are going to make a big improvement,” Waynick said.
At the same time, Lambert emphasized what he called “a bit of hard news,” that even with the eventual improvements in the city’s infrastructure, storms like the one that dropped more than four inches of rain in 40 minutes on Saturday and Sunday will continue to overwhelm city infrastructure.
“Four and five inches of rain in an hour, that’s the kind of rainfall event that we would be preparing for in a tropical storm condition or hurricane conditions,” Lambert said.
“One really important point to make here is that rain at this intensity is going to inundate almost any system,” Lambert added. “So, even in future conditions when we are able to make significant improvements, if these climate change induced storms continue to increase in intensity, they are going to continue to cause problems.”
The words of Lambert and other city officials have done little to calm residents, as they anticipate the next storm and the destruction it will bring to their neighborhoods and properties. However, with all the clouds in the sky, Waynick said there are still some silver linings.
The community in Del Ray and other neighborhoods across the city have come together in ways that are rare. Waynick described text chains that erupt with chatter as soon as rain starts to fall as well as a communication system neighbors have created to track where flooding occurs in the neighborhood during a storm.
“There’s very few things in life that can bond a community like shared struggle and shared trauma,” Waynick said. “…There is definitely a sense of community that is coming together and has been what I think is helping people get through this.”