There was no shortage of praise at Saturday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Huntington Levee for the officials, county workers, contractors and residents who in one way or another contributed to the project.
But the “man of the hour,” as Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck put it, was Gerry Hyland. The former Mount Vernon District Supervisor, who retired in 2015, was lauded by an array of speakers, including Storck, Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay, Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, former Congressman Jim Moran.
Moran, who retired in 2014, singled out Hyland and the county for fighting to save more than 160 homes in Huntington when the federal government refused to intervene — and after even some in the county had written off the area.
“It had to be a community initiative, and the community went to bat with a man out in front. That was Gerry Hyland,” said former Congressman Jim Moran.
Moran recounted how the federal government could not justify the expense of the levee. That meant Fairfax County had to step up, and “Hyland took it upon himself to sell it to his colleagues on the [Board of Supervisors], to sell it throughout the entire county of Fairfax.”
Hyland ultimately prevailed in getting a $30 million stormwater bond put on the ballot in 2012 after the Board of Supervisors voted — not unanimously — to approve it. That November the bond was overwhelmingly approved by voters, helping finance a project that essentially saved a small neighborhood in corner of the county that had often been overlooked.
“For me to be standing here today with a solution to a problem that this community needed to solve, it’s just such a wonderful feeling,” Hyland said prior to the ribbon cutting. “It was worth every single penny that was spent on this project. It was absolutely the right thing to do.”
Hyland, along with other speakers like James Patteson, who retired in December as the county’s Public Works and Environmental Services Director, recounted visiting Huntington during and after the floods of 2003, 2006 and 2011, when the community was devastated by water overflowing from Cameron Run. The floods destroyed property in the duplexes on Fenwick Drive and Arlington Terrace, and in the years in between the major floods there were evacuations, street flooding and constant anxiety when major storms hit the area.
The worries about flooding drove some residents to move, and those who stayed spent years wondering if the problem would ever be fixed. Former Huntington Community Association president Alan Ruof, who advocated for the levee and worked with county officials as a liaison as the project got underway, recalled that Huntington lost some of its vibrancy because of the flood.
That, he said Saturday, has changed.
“There was always, especially after 2006 a sense of despair.” Ruof said. “It’s gone. The cloud has lifted.”
During Saturday’s ceremony inside the levee’s pumphouse, Ruof and his wife Elaine were presented with a gift from Huntington residents. It included a letter of thanks for their roles in advocating for the levee and much more.
“They advised lawmakers, organized volunteers to get the signatures for the bond on the ballots, helped neighbors with homeowners insurance paperwork, answered our questions, kept us informed and helped residents when we had issues,” the letter said in part.
“A national standard”
In early 2017 ground was broken on the levee, and the project proceeded without any major delays despite heavy rains in the the summers of 2017 and 2018. Most major work was completed by this spring, officials said. Later this summer the county will take full control of the pumping station from Archer Western, the project’s contractor.
The 2,800-foot long levee rises between 6-11 feet tall, with the earthen embankment 13 feet wide at the top. There’s also a I-wall at the top of the levee, and pumping station designed to remove water channeled to it from behind the levee.
Residents got a peak inside the pumping station on Saturday, and speakers marveled at the engineering and construction feat that the facility represented.
“When Fairfax does something, they do it right,” Moran said of the levee, which received a national award earlier this year for sustainable infrastructure. “This is not some ramshackle place. This is like a national standard for flood mitigation.”
The levee has also meant the reopening of a new Huntington Park, complete with a trail that runs along the top of the levee and which is planned to eventually be extended through to Richmond Highway and possibly beyond. Nearby Farrington Park was also rebuilt as part of the project.
“We have a community amenity here,” Bulova said. “This is beautiful. Walking trails and playgrounds. This levee has been transformational in so many ways for the community. “
Hyland concluded his remarks by pointing to the levee project ultimately benefited lower-income residents, and emphasized that saving the homes was the only option that ever should have been considered.
“This is a community of lower to middle income people. And people ask what we do or what we’ve we done to help keep lower income people in this community, [Huntington] is one of the best examples … what we did here to keep this community whole,” Hyland said. “An awful lot of people said just bulldoze this community. Just knock it down, get rid of it and don’t worry about about flooding in the future.”