Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpThis November I witnessed an online demonstration of a new real-time flood mapping tool from the National Weather Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The new data, funded in part by Arlington, give advance warning of rising Potomac waters in D.C. and Northern Virginia (including Four Mile Run). They drew partly from past history that includes the notorious Hurricane Agnes of June 1972—if you lived through it, you too have the memories.

Four days of rains, 128 deaths in mid-Atlantic states (16 died in Virginia, with damage at $222 million). Richmond was hit hard, Occoquan lost its iron Pratt Truss Bridge, Fairfax lost power for its water supply, and rainfall in Chantilly reached 16 inches.

The Potomac swelled even with the Kennedy Center terrace, and a piano floated in its swirling waves. The canal’s walls broke in three places. George Lincoln, head of the federal Office of Emergency Preparedness, said the East Coast flooding was “the most massive in history.” Iconic news photos showed President Nixon in a helicopter over Wilkes Barre, Pa.

My own memory reverberates from my teenage summer job moving furniture for Newlon’s Transfer. In the slosh, we came back to the Nelson Street yard and heard the D.C. bridges were blocked. One of our black crew chiefs, Al Dean Knight, couldn’t drive home.

My brother and I invited him to sleep on a cot in our home. In the middle of the night, we were awoken by a thunderous crash. The brick retaining wall in our side yard had given way—a brick came flying through the window in my brother’s bedroom, just missing Al Dean’s head.

Memories of Chain Bridge with sudsy rapids only feet below were collected by Arlington’s Central Library in 2012. They included tales from Joseph Fletcher of McLean, whose family owned Fletcher’s boathouse. His father ordered him to cross Chain Bridge and help stabilize 16 boats, the only ones left from the 80 they owned.

Arlington was relatively lucky. According to the June 24, 1972, Washington Star interview with Washington National Airport manager Bernard McGinnis, crews worked all night putting up sandbags around vaults containing electronic equipment. Amazingly, the Potomac rose to 9 feet, not the 12 foot sign on a marker, which would have meant it spilled over to runways and shut flights down.

The main obstacle in Arlington was five hours of gridlock in Crystal City’s Route 1 packed with traffic diverted from the GW Parkway. ABC 7 Chief Meteorologist Doug Hill in 2012 recalled, “There was a shopping center in Arlandria, and the firefighters had to helplessly watch the fires rage because there was no way to get to it.” The bridge across Four Mile Run at Walter Reed Drive collapsed.

The damage from Agnes helped clinch Rep. Joel Broyhill’s proposal for federal money to bolster the Arlandria channel against flooding, a multi-million-dollar project completed in 1977.

It also prompted Civic Federation president Joe Pelton, who would serve on the Long-Range County Improvement Commission, in the mid-1970s to help State Del. Warren Stambaugh gather 2,500 signatures asking the Virginia Transportation Department to replace the one-lane Bailey Bridge over Four Mile Run.

That, Pelton told me, was the beginning of the economic revitalization of then-decaying Shirlington. Forty-four years after Agnes, it is one of Arlington’s most vibrant–and mostly dry– communities.

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One of Arlington’s most experienced Christmas tree salesmen is looking for a new lot.

C.W. “Chuck” Fields Jr., the 86-year-old owner of the Columbia Pike plumbing concern, has been selling trees for the South Arlington Lions and, later, the Better Sport Club of Arlington for 54 years, his assistant Emily Carnes told me.

Now the property at the Food Star at George Mason and the Pike, which they used for the last quarter-century, is slated for re-development. Fields was given the honor of selling the final tree on the site—pending a search by next December for a new venue.