Alexandria: A town under the tide

ALEXANDRIA, Va., Sept. 20 – It’s a smell people just couldn’t put their finger on. A combination of things – stale food, dry air, crusty water – it lingered throughout Old Town Alexandria. It was in carpets, clothes and even cash registers. Residents and businesses opened up their windows, brought in high-powered dryers and hired cleaning crews to speed up the process of getting back on their feet. Business owners wanted to start selling, but they couldn’t. They had to clean. No customers would buy anything when their noses were filled with the pungent aroma of leftover seafood. Owners said they had to clean as fast as possible.

While GW students enjoyed a day off from school, fewer than 10 miles away, Hurricane Isabel pounded Alexandria. At high tide on Friday, floodwaters from the Potomac River had risen more than nine feet above its banks. Covered by more than six feet of water, Union Street, an area known for good eating and shopping, was transformed into a river. After the water level receded, one resident said fish were left lying in the street and a small boat had been carried inland.

Every business was hit hard. Garbage lined the halls and storefronts of the Waterfront Marina Mall. Ben & Jerry’s threw out all of their perishables. Store operators hosed down inventory and used push brooms to get the mud and remaining water into the street. Using tools and cleaning supplies, employees tried salvaging as much as they could.

The newest edition to Union Street was a Starbucks, only a month old, and it was a lost cause – chairs were muddy, coffee mugs were broken and the display cases now boasted seaweed. The owners rented industrial air dryers and hired a service crew to help with the cleaning, but little could be saved. One of the workers said the cleanup would take several days, not including the time it would take to disinfect everything.

But perhaps the hardest hit venue was Olsson’s Books and Records.

Manager Russell Rudolph was hoping for the best when he woke up Friday morning. To prevent the flooding, he sandbagged all five doors and taped plastic sheets to waterproof the cracks. However, when he entered the back of the store, he was greeted by the sight of overturned appliances and soaked floors. Rudolf said he understood before Isabel hit that some things would get damaged but was shocked when he walked to the front of the store.

“The city told us to prepare for some flooding, but not this,” Rudolph said.

The entire floor was covered with soaked books and products that had fallen to the floor. The store’s bestsellers and other books were lost. Employees estimated they would fill an entire dumpster with debris before the weekend was over – more than 5,000 books. The books can be replaced, and Rudolph said that flood insurance and federal assistance will aid the recovery process.

Fortunately, many of the store’s CDs and DVDs were in good shape. Their placement on higher shelves saved them from further damage, but the water overturned a refrigerator and other shelves weighing more than 100 pounds.

“I’ll try to keep a sense of humor about it and keep in good spirits. It was very upsetting, but you have to move on from it,” Rudolph said.

He plans to replace the carpets and air out the store, but several days’ worth of lost sales will be harder to remedy. The cafe on the top floor remained open throughout the weekend, but Rudolph said many potential patrons turned away after noticing the building’s damage.

“We lost one day of selling, which for a small business like us is awful,” he said. “So many people are coming up to the store window to look in at the damage. Any one of them could be potential customers.”

One of Rudolph’s main concerns, however, was sandbag distribution. He was not alone.

Michele Richardson, owner of Gallerie Michele on King Street, was upset that many businesses with a reduced flood risk received more sandbags than she did.

Although city officials understood their concerns, they said Alexandria was one of the only cities that distributed sandbags.

“We put out 11,000 sandbags at three locations and people came by on their own to pick up a maximum of five each,” said Alexandria’s Public Information Officer Barbara Gordon. “It’s not an ideal situation … but we couldn’t have crews do nothing but make sandbags. Sandbags are only one small part of the preparation that the city could and did do.”

Richardson only got sandbags because of some generous neighbors. It didn’t matter, though, because the water got through them. Richardson is thankful, however, that her gallery is on the second floor. Despite some pieces in a first floor display case and some in storage, her store was in good shape. But her concern is for her plaster walls, as she does not know how much water got into them. She does not want to have to close the store to make structural repairs.

Richardson said this was the worst flooding she has seen in 20 years of business.

Even though Richardson could open her store, she decided not to just yet.

“People are not in a buying mood. They need to be relaxed,” she said. “I’m not sure if opening will do any good because buyers need to be in a perfect mood to buy art.”

A few doors up the street, a seafood restaurant posted a sign like those of many other businesses: “Closed thanks to Isabel.”

Restaurant owner Dennis Benitiz had a problem, but it had nothing to do with flooding. His restaurant, located on a hill, saw minimal water damage; however, the gas was out, leaving Benitiz no way to boil water. This canceled any plans to cook and, more importantly, to drink water.

Nearly 100,000 residents in Alexandria and Arlington lost power, and many lost the gas needed to light their stoves. Despite the abundance of water outside their doors, sanitary water was lacking. The Fairfax County Water Authority lost power in the storm and county officials placed a “boil water order” onto all residents. An official said the order was expected to be lifted no later than this weekend.

No boiling water meant restaurants closing their doors and residents grabbing as many water bottles as they could carry. The situation was worse for those who lost gas because they did not have a means to boil water, so a crude solution of adding drops of chlorine to water was suggested.

On Thursday Alexandria declared a state of emergency. Officials said they received more than 150 calls of fallen trees and thousands of branches and limbs that need to be removed. The city has placed more than 50 people on cleanup crews, and many private contractors were called in to assist businesses and residents.

Alexandria resident Owen Young was amazed by the damage.

“I’ve seen Union Street under water before, but never like this,” he said.

Resident Chris Steele and his family moved half a block from Union Street less than a week ago, and much of his house was filled with unpacked boxes. Instead of settling into his new house, Steele found himself clearing debris, but he admits he was lucky to not sustain any damage. Only four houses down, a 50-foot tree toppled over onto the street, he said.

“We got no damage at all, and it’s kind of surprising because of how much everyone else got. It just goes to show you how little control we have over nature,” Steele said.

GW senior Amy Jo Woloszyn, who lives in Alexandria, had a different reaction to Isabel. She lost power and water but said the rain and wind did not affect her much.

“The hurricane wasn’t impressive at all,” she said. “I used to live in Florida, and this was not that bad.”

Gordon said most of the city will be back to normal Monday, even though some electricity may not be restored and some traffic lights will be out.

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