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Fairfax County residents worried about flooding and power outages from climate change, survey finds

Flooding, power outages, and other impacts from storms are among the top climate change-related concerns for Fairfax County residents, the recently released results of a county survey suggest.

606 community members participated in the survey that the Fairfax County Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination (OEEC) conducted between June 8 and July 2 as part of its Resilient Fairfax initiative, which will produce a plan for how the county can withstand and adapt to the threats introduced by a warming planet.

81% of respondents cited severe storms as a concern, followed by changing temperatures (79%) and flooding (60%), according to the survey results report published on Nov. 8.

55% of respondents said they’re concerned about drought, 40% about fire risks, and 19% listed other climate hazards, including air quality and pollution, health effects, and the impact on plants and animals.

While the survey drew responses from just a fraction of the 1.1 million people who live in Fairfax County, the results still offer insight into the community’s awareness of the risks posed by climate change — and how they are already affecting people’s lives, county staff say.

“It helps us gather information that’s not available through quantitative data that we have,” OEEC Senior Planner Allison Homer said. “People’s opinions or people’s concerns, that’s not something we have access to without asking.”

Flooding

24.6% of the Fairfax County residents who answered the survey said their neighborhood has flooded within the past five years, with 9.8% of residents saying it has affected their home.

Of the respondents who work in the county, 24.8% said they have experienced flooding at their place of employment. 67.1% of respondents said they have witnessed flooding in the county outside their home or work, such as on roads.

The survey identifies Hunter Mill Road, Richmond Highway, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Prosperity Avenue, Huntington Avenue, and Little River Turnpike among the areas most vulnerable to flooding, though Homer says the evenly distributed flood map in the report doesn’t fully align with the county’s data.

“I think it’s sort of biased towards the areas where people lived that are taking the survey,” she said. “Our most flood-prone roads in reality are mostly concentrated towards the eastern part of the county.”

Flood risks tend to be higher in areas with older infrastructure, according to OEEC Division Manager Matt Meyers, citing the Great Falls area as an example.

“Those were country road when they were first built, but now, they’re surrounded by urban development, so those road culverts were not designed to today’s standards,” Meyers said. “They’re already inadequate, and then, when we have these intense rainfalls, they’re just overwhelmed.”

Power Outages

A sizable 80.7% of survey respondents reported experiencing storm damage other than flooding — such as power outages, damage to infrastructure and buildings, and downed trees — in their neighborhood within the past five years.

In particular, 94% of respondents said they have lost power in that time frame. While 46% said they were not significantly affected by a power outage, many reported notable ramifications:

  • Loss of ability to communicate by phone or online (57%)
  • Spoiled food (28%)
  • Unable to stay inside because their home became too hot or cold (28%)
  • Loss of refrigerated medications (2%)
  • Operational issues with a life-supporting medical device (2%)
  • Other impacts, mostly related to using a generator for power (7%)

Many of the areas cited as vulnerable were the same ones seen as susceptible to flooding, including Richmond Highway, Hunter Mill Road, Lawyers Road, Old Dominion Drive, and Prosperity Avenue.

The fragility of the power grid is an issue nationwide, as illustrated by extreme weather from a winter storm in Texas to this summer’s Pacific Northwest heat wave.

Homer says the county government can help reinforce Fairfax County’s power system by investing in backup generators, for example, but many changes, like moving power lines underground, will require cooperation from the state and utilty companies, which are involved in Reslient Fairfax as part of its Infrastructure Advisory Group.

“Renewable energy like solar installations can help enhance resilience if they’re paired with storage,” Homer said. “…But there are some limitations in Virginia as far as [how] we can use that solar plus storage, so we’re trying to see how much we can do that’s within our power to do.”

The Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plan

The survey is just one part of the Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plan that OEEC expects to finalize for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ approval in June 2022.

In the coming months, county staff will release a climate projections report forecasting temperatures, precipitation levels, and other future conditions. They’re also developing a vulnerability and risk assessment that will incorporate feedback from the survey and an audit of the county’s existing policies and programs to determine where updates might be needed.

The final piece of the initiative will be a roadmap for how the county can implement its strategies for climate resilience.

Since launching in April, Resilient Fairfax has held two public meetings, and Homer says another community survey is planned for January. There will be a public comment period after a draft of the resilience plan is released in April.

The initiative works with the Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan that the Board of Supervisors adopted in September, which recommends steps for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the Resilient Fairfax team’s goals is to identify strategies that can address both the causes and effects of climate change.

“Resilient Fairfax is acknowledging that we’re already facing impacts from climate change,” Homer said. “We’re already facing more severe storms and flooding and heat, so while we’re all working to reduce our emissions, we also need to make sure that we’re prepared for the impacts at the same time.”

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