Friday, June 30, 2006


Volunteering in the flood zone

The downpour this past weekend created a lot of problems for the DC area, including a flash flood along Cameron Run which somehow managed to rise high enough to dump mud on the Beltway. Folks, that is something like 30 feet over its normal trickle. This flood also filled up basements in almost all the houses north of Huntington Avenue, which is my old neighborhood. I live in an apartment complex over by Route 1, but I walked past that neighborhood to the Metro many times, biked through it, even looked at a couple houses there this spring when I was house hunting.

Obviously, I'm glad now that I went elsewhere! But I felt like I should lend a hand, so when I read that Volunteer Fairfax was putting together a work day, I signed up. It was very efficient and well-organized, and the modern wealth of northern Virginia was on full display. Volunteers (and there were a lot of us) were provided with tools, plenty of water and food, and even safety gear including duck boots, filter masks, protective eyewear and paper hazmat suits (no, we didn't have the astronaut helmets to go with them. I am your father, Luke.)

I was certified for every kind of job, and mostly did a lot of heavy lifting. These houses were built in the 40s so they all have washers and dryers in the basement, which were all ruined by the water. I helped pull the machines out of 5-6 houses. Several of us spent much of the morning working in one particular basement where a very sharp and matter-of-fact elderly woman had to throw out a lifetime of memories ranging from a dresser her mother owned as a child to a large box full of old checkbooks and other files. The afternoon saw more washers and dryers come out. Most of the basements also contained water heaters and furnaces, but we were ordered not to mess with gas appliances. This was in spite of solid information that the gas was shut off throughout the neighborhood, so maybe there's another reason to leave those to the pros.

Probably the most fun job of the day was removing the lower 3 feet of drywall from the basement of an empty house that had been almost ready to go on the market. Four of us got started with hammers and prybars and were making painfully slow progress. Then one of the firefighters slipped us a couple of tools off a firetruck. Those things (he told us the name and history of them but I forget) are designed to rapidly expose fires inside the walls, and they tear out drywall like it was wet paper towel. Of course once the breaking-stuff part was done all the scraps had to be shoveled into bags and carried outside, which was a lot more like work.

The teams were organized into specific work areas, and ours was on relatively high ground. The peak water levels had ranged from a couple feet to 3-4 feet above the basement floor. Further down it was much, much worse. People were coming back from the bottom of the street covered in mud. Even a county supervisor who just came to tour the site had mud and slime up to his chest. One of the gas company guys told me that he saw the flood and that the water rose so fast people didn't even have time to move their cars ...then fell again. Just long and high enough to destroy half or more of everything the residents owned.

I can't say enough how newly impressed I am with people in my community. I bitch a lot about how materialistic and silly the DC area has gotten, but there are clearly still hundreds, maybe thousands of people here who will pitch in when the chips are down. All you need is good people.

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