Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Heavy rains put some DC homeowners, near Potomac River in MD, out of homes for a long time due to slides; how pervasive a threat?

The vulnerability of homeowners to localized disasters was underscored by the long time some homeowners along Piscataway Drive in Fort Washington, southern Prince Georges County, MD, along the Potomac River, were kept out of their homes after torrential rains at the end of April. 

I looked at the area Monday.  It is off Old Fort Road along Maryland 210, which heads toward Indian Head and a Naval Base in Charles County.  It is a bit confusing because there are two intersections with Old Ford.  The second turn is the correct one, and Piscataway Drive turns off to the left, and winds down hill.  After two sharp turns (about a mile from the first turn), Police still have the road closed.  Residents are now allowed to enter, apparently.  The road winds down toward the river.  People who buy homes in the area are living in a relatively remote location, hard to provide utilities and farther from normal retail businesses and conveniences.  The homes at risk are downslope about fifty feet from the top of a ridge that has elevation 170 feet.  A layer or Marlboro clay makes the hillsides susceptible to instability and slides after heavy rains.  It appears that the slope failures occurred below the homes (at about foundation level) and above a clay layer, at about 120 feet elevation. . 

The Washington Post provides a detailed map here.  A major issue for homeowners appears to be restoring stable water service. You can also look at the area with Google maps.

The old Fort Washington, built for the War of 1812, is nearby and, managed by the National Park Service, is open to the public.  If you hike along the river trail, you see hillsides with the same vulnerability to collapse as the residential areas that police have closed off. There is considerable slide damage in some areas of the park, where no one lives.

Should homeowners be criticized for taking on additional risk in living near water or in less geologically stable areas?  It has not been reported how much of this problem is handled by homeowner’s insurance (and subrogated to the county), or whether insurance would pay for motel bills.  These homeowners appear to have reasonable incomes and resources, but in some cases an event like this would put people in shelters or call upon others to put them up.

Route 210 leads to other interesting areas.   There is a “Piscataway Park” to the south of Fort Washington, Nearby is the National Colonial Farm of the Accokeek Foundation (link), which runs a farm with volunteers, and one can see some of facility (like a pig feeding station).  It has a look that resembles an intentional community (maybe a bit like the Acorn Community Farm in Virginia, which I have not personally seen; I have visited the larger Twin Oaks).  There is also a Moyanne Community Center and garden nearby.

Route 210 leads to other interesting areas, like the Smallwood St. Park slightly to the east in Charles County, with massive wetlands. 

Note that Monday night the Weather Channel (with NBC4’s Doug Kammerer) aired a simulation of an EF5 tornado in Washington DC (see my “films on major threats to freedom” blog).  

Update: July 2, 2014

Local media reports that Prince Georges County has various proposals to fix the problems, but may not have the money without appropriation from the state of Maryland/  It's possible to build a temporary water main that would not survive the winter.  There are disagreements as to the legal responsibility for the integrity of the slope.  It's possible that some residents can be out for six months, and that some homes could be razed. There is talk that the County could possibly buy back the land and homes from some residents.  

The story shows how easy it is for a homeowner to become vulnerable and possibly homeless if not anticipating the problems in an area. 

I was in the North Shore of Long Island, near Great Neck, on June 30, and I could see how low many homes are built;  even the north side (away from the Ocean) could become vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge.

Update:  January 18, 2016

On MKK Day, I drove down Piscataway Drive, and it looks like the slope has been repaired and everything is back to normal.  Who paid for the repairs and damage?  I don't see much news on it or much on it.  If you know, comment.  The scenery is spectacular, almost like the California coast, with wintry vegetation. 

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