Woman behind DrainALX campaign shares frustrations and hopes from locals after Sunday flood

Furniture drying out after flooding in Del Ray after a massive storm on August 14, 2021. (via DrainALX/Twitter)

For Katie Waynick, like many Del Ray residents, it’s been a pretty depressing week.

Waynick runs DrainALX, a social media campaign with a Twitter following that surged to over 600 followers this weekend, and was bombarded this weekend with pictures and videos from friends and neighbors with homes flooded and pipes overflowing.

“People are tired,” Waynick said. “All of these failings from last year are still there. Last year there was intense anger. This year it’s almost grief. We’re exasperated, we don’t know what to do.”

Waynick said last year was the year that most realized they need to make modifications and repairs to their home. But this year, when those improvements were put to the test, Waynick said some feel beaten down after those failed.

“What we’re seeing is frankly, some of these issues are bigger than what can be mitigated at a property level,” Waynick said.

This weekend, DrainALX was one of the most up-to-date sources of information and videos of flooding throughout the city. The project started as a relatively small neighborhood email list, but in the past 48 hours, Waynick said the following on the account shot up as the footage came in of toilets backing up and residents standing in waist-high stormwater.

One resident near Waynick has their home completely cut-off by floodwater during heavy rainfall. Every year, the water level gets slightly higher, and now Waynick said the home owner has a small boat they keep in the house as their emergency escape plan.

Waynick said she was fortunate this weekend and the four systems they installed in their house last year held out, but she said they were only one of about three residents on their street that weren’t heavily impacted.

“My next door neighbors had a foot of sewage,” Waynick said. “Another has done the mitigation, got the flood doors, and the water just came up into her stairwell about five feet high and broke through the flood door. Our neighborhood has felt like a funeral the last few days, everyone is on pins and needles.”

Beyond just the public health threat of stormwater flooding into homes and the financial damage wrecked by the storms, Waynick said there’s a mental health component to the crisis in Alexandria.

“People are desperate,” Waynick said. “The rain at 1:30 in the morning woke me up. I had people messaging me saying ‘I can’t sleep, I’m awake and I’m downstairs, this is not a way to live.’ There’s a mental trauma that goes unreported because there’s no quantifiable way, you can’t put that into dollar signs, but it’s having a real impact on residents.”

One misconception, Waynick said, is that the flooding “only” affects residents with basements.

“A lot of people truncate this down to basements,” Waynick said. “A: that’s frustrating because in a city like Alexandria every square foot is so valuable. If we’re allowed to have finished basements, it shouldn’t be minimized that that’s destroyed. But there are also a lot of homeowners where this is affecting their first floor. I have a very sincere wish that we stop truncating this down to a conversation about basements.”

The basement topic is also frustrating, Waynick said, with the city pushing basement accessory dwelling units as a potential solution to affordable housing and aging-in-place woes. Waynick said it’s concerning that locations where the city is encouraging elderly residents to live are also places most vulnerable to flooding.

Another frustration some locals have, Waynick said, is when the infrastructure failures are attributed entirely to climate change. The city’s City of Alexandria Storm Sewer Capacity Analysis highlight that there are areas — like parts of Del Ray — where flooding has been a problem for decades.

“This is not just climate change,” Waynick said. “That’s obviously playing a huge role in this story, but for some areas, this is an infrastructure issue known for decades that is now being highlighted repeatedly and routinely exacerbated by climate change.”

Waynick said a longtime failure to address critical infrastructure needs plays as much of a part as climate change.

“It shouldn’t be controversial to just point out: municipalities across the country are facing infrastructure issues, it isn’t something we’re facing alone, and it’s not controversial and not a partisan issue,” Waynick said. “It’s hard to see ‘well this is a climate issue we can never fund our way out of’ and while there’s some truth to that, there’s infrastructure issues here that are at breaking point.”

Despair shouldn’t eclipse that there are positive strides being made, Waynick said, but she said the city also needs to hit the gas on some projects currently slated for years from now. Mayor Justin Wilson told ALXnow that the city is working to move up the timeline on some stormwater infrastructure projects, but that they will still take time to accomplish.

“You can’t ignore that the City Council has taken steps to right that ship,” Waynick said. “They absolutely have spent a lot of time and effort on it. But I can’t agree with the Mayor more: we need to accelerate this… There’s no way any engineer can walk up to the big projects on the CIP list and bring them around today. The frustration is: when you recognize how long these areas have been considered known issues, why were they allowed to be issues for so long without the design studies being funded? Why was the leg-work not done so that when money was ready for construction it would be ready to go? But that doesn’t help us with what to do today.”

Waynick said she’s hopeful that the American Rescue Plan funding allocated by the City of Alexandria can help, particularly at sites like Hoof’s Run and the city’s ability to do spot-projects, in part because Waynick says the burden of fixing the infrastructure can’t be put solely on stormwater utility fee increases. The city is already planning to double the stormwater utility fee.

One of the lessons learned from past mishandling of infrastructure problems, Waynick said, would be funding design and feasibility studies now so that projects can be implemented when funding becomes available down the road.

But Waynick said there are problems that run deeper than surface-level solutions like adding more storm drains.

“My concern is that in a lot of these areas, you have got to address underlying capacity before more drains are going to help,” Waynick said. “Some of these spot projects are smaller projects and a lot of these areas, where we talk about the drains themselves, there is a lot of fears from a lot of residents: what happens when you add more drains but the pipes underneath them aren’t large enough to take more water?”

In the meantime, Waynick said the backflow preventer program is a positive step — if a temporary one. Waynick said her goal is a time when residents “only” lament their cars and yards being destroyed, and not flood waters coming into their home. Waynick qualified that by saying, though, that this goal is stormwater not flooding homes even without additional systems installed by homeowners.

“One of the big things helping people is the backflow preventer program,” Waynick said. “It’s a good program, but it’s a short term solution and a mechanical fix on a property level to a problem that is city infrastructure problem. When I say ‘sewage not coming into people’s homes” I don’t mean ‘everyone has backflow preventers’ I mean there’s enough capacity in stormwater infrastructure to handle storms.”

In the meantime, Waynick said she’s heard from neighbors that it can be difficult to keep their hopes up for their future in Alexandria with their home waterlogged.

“It’s always overwhelming,” Waynick said. “It’s hard to see. These communities are so tight knit that people feel like there’s no other option than just leaving… You look at the situation and it just feels hopeless.”

Photo via DrainALX/Twitter

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