Tired of constant repair bills, community members want a solution now.
ALEXANDRIA – When Diana and Vinay Oberoi moved into their new home in April 2018, they had dreams of a fresh start – the kind most new homeowners feel. Only three months later, their optimism was washed away along with thousands of dollars when a flash flood swept through.
“We’ve experienced four total floods since we moved into our house,” Diana said. “The first we experienced was in July 2018; the force of the water broke in our basement door and filled it with over five feet of water. Everything was destroyed, our water heater, airconditioning, washer and dryer, our whole pantry, television, bed, dresser and flooring.”
Then, to make a bad situation worse, the first flood in 2018 and the destruction it brought was not covered by flood insurance. They repaired the damage out of pocket.
“Overall, damages that we have paid out of pocket exceeded just over $50,000, and we will need to spend an additional $10,000 on additional flood mitigation for the backyard,” she said.
Since 2018, the Oberoi’s have bought flood insurance, and with good reason as there have been two major flooding events in Alexandria this year alone. But why didn’t the couple have flood insurance from the start? Because they didn’t think they would need it. In Virginia, sellers aren’t required to disclose a history of flooding, and the home was not in a flood zone. They moved in with no knowledge of the issue and no reason to worry that it would become one.
City, residents divided on flood’s cause
Their story is not unique. Residents in multiple city neighborhoods deal with the same situation, as we reported last week. City officials recognize there’s a problem. They and the residents disagree, however, on what caused it. Residents like the Oberois feel delayed maintenance of the city’s storm drain system and overall infrastructure is to blame. They point to the 90 planned projects that are needed for the stormwater system to just handle 10-year storms. That means infrastructure has to be able to handle a storm producing 2.7 inches of rain in an hour or a maximum of 5.3 inches over 24 hours. Many older areas of the city have storm sewer infrastructure that was installed decades prior to the current design standards. Those systems struggle to handle big storms.
While council members acknowledge that, they and city staff believe part of the issue stems from climate change. Large storms used to be rare, now they’re happening several times a year. Even in the areas with current stormwater systems, too much rain falls too quickly for the drains to handle. That’s not something a city can plan for. Alexandria’s solution is to speed up its 10-year Capital Improvement Plan, which had $150 million set aside for stormwater and sewer. But that takes extra revenue, which they don’t have. That’s especially true now, in the middle of a pandemic.
In the meantime, while the city has offered help, it comes with a caveat. From Sept. 2018 to Aug. 24 of this year, 72 households received up to $2000 each from the City Backflow Preventer Program, which stops rainfall overflow from entering basements through sewers. The city received over 600 service requests this summer — over half due to the flooding in September. However, some people aren’t going down that road as it requires them to release the city from damages. Essentially, they can’t hold Alexandria accountable or sue if they take the deal.
Residents need help now
The most recent flood was in September, and like they have experienced multiple times, Alexandria residents’ homes flooded, while sewage seeped out of drains and into homes. On any given day, that is disgusting, but during a pandemic, residents say that it is unimaginable.
“We aren’t asking for much – just that city stormwater and sewage systems do not make already bad storms worse,” said Katie Waynick, a resident who has been impacted by the flooding. “The fact that these things are happening during a global pandemic only adds salt to the wound.”
Katia Miniovich lost her water heater in the July flood. Before she could even fix it, there was the second flood in September. She also lost her washer and dryer, and her air conditioning works only sometimes. To make matters worse, she had planned to open a Pilates studio in her basement and rent it out. She lost $50,000 worth of equipment during the July flood. Miniovich is still paying for the equipment and says, “there is no way I am getting that money back again.”
Now Miniovich had flood insurance, but it didn’t help. In fact, that led to a bizarre situation. Recently, a representative came out and assessed the damage. The agent called it appalling. But when the company sent a check, it was for less than she expected. Much less.
“I just got a statement from them the other day saying they are paying a huge amount of $4.71,” Miniovich said. “I figured flood insurance is flood insurance. This (coverage) is through FEMA, I paid a lot of money for it, the deductible was $1,250, and they are only willing to give me $4.71 back.”
Fine print causes problems
She’s not alone in this either. Many residents are finding that buried deep down in the fine print, their insurance does not cover basement flooding.
“Some are out of options as their claims have been denied, leaving them to cover cleanup and damage expenses easily topping $10,000, others have been dropped from insurance altogether and risk losing their homes,” Waynick explained. “Small businesses that were once run out of homes have lost tens of thousands in equipment, let alone lost time.”
What residents don’t understand is why nobody seems to be able to help solve the problem. They’ve reached out to City officials, who held a town hall meeting with them last week. But again, there’s a funding issue. While officials want to speed up projects, it’s hard to do that without raising taxes or getting grant funding. Neither option is easy to do right now. They’ve also reached out to state and federal representatives, with little success.
“Our tax values have gone significantly in the past couple of years,” said Avantika Singh, an Alexandria resident, and flood victim. “So we are paying for infrastructure, we are paying for environmental studies. We are paying, and we aren’t getting the support we need.”
Several residents told Dogwood they’ve looked into selling their homes, but the city’s flooding problems made headlines across the state. As a result, there’s not exactly a big market. But if they stay, residents are afraid at some point, it won’t just be property damage they’re talking about.
“It is only a matter of time before deaths and injury occur in addition to the property damage,” said Giacomo Bergama. “There have already been some close calls with near-drownings and electrocutions as well as water rescues that private citizens have had to undertake.”
Erica Turman is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].