Bloomingdale floods expose sewer systems strained by development


Teri Janine Quinn, President of the Bloomingdale Civic Association at her home in NW Washington, D.C. The aging drainage system in the area has caused flooding for many in her neighborhood and she's hoping that a task force can held solve the problems. (Michael S. Williamson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Jared E. Moffett climbed atop his granite kitchen counter for refuge. Pools of raw sewage were flooding his apartment, gurgling up from his toilet and spreading like ooze.

This was not what he had bargained for. Three years ago, Moffett bought a basement apartment near Fifth Street and Florida Avenue NW in the rapidly transforming 20001 Zip code, which includes LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale. Moffett, 30, an administrator at the University of the District of Columbia, was eager to dine at the new restaurants nearby and meet fellow young professionals.

But a problem lay underneath. As developers have added connections to the sewer lines to serve basement apartments created in old cellars, a sewer system built in the late 1800s is struggling to handle the unprecedented strain. And longtime residents wonder why city officials never seemed to seriously address the flooding issue until the area gentrified.

Over 10 days in July, dirty water flooded dozens of basement apartments on three days, creating a stench. Now when residents talk about the up-and-coming area, the topic is usually what’s emanating from below.

“This was the only place I could live around here that I could afford, and I invested here,’’ said Moffett, who has paid thousands of dollars to cleaners and contractors for repairs. “But the city didn’t do its part. And now everyone on my block suffers.”

Renters are walking away from their leases, and some owners are considering selling. At least 16 residents have filed claims with DC Water, asking it to pay for repairs that their insurance companies won’t.

They contend that the black gunk is a physical manifestation of the city’s folly, a symptom of unregulated growth.

An analysis of census data indicates that the population of this Zip code swelled by 14 percent in the past decade. The city water and sewer agency connected new lines for washing machines, sinks and toilets to 19th-century pipes without much limitation. Before last month, so many floods had never pummeled the area in such a short time.

“What’s happening is homes are being used in ways they weren’t designed” for, said Alan Heymann, the agency’s chief of external relations. He added that city agencies need to examine “whether the infrastructure can handle the new uses of properties.”

Facing pressure from residents, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) announced Tuesday that a newly appointed task force will study the issue and recommend short-term solutions for the soggy neighborhood.

Allen Y. Lew, the city administrator, declared that the neighborhood must be treated with “emergency care.”

The old-timers watch this activism with wonder. Overflowing waters have troubled Bloomingdale and parts of LeDroit Park for decades. Residents resigned themselves to stuffing their closets with emergency sandbags and bleach. Until now, the city contended that it could do little until it builds an underground tunnel that can hold excess storm water. The estimated completion date: 2025.

“We’ve complained about this problem for years, but I don’t feel like things were taken as seriously until our demographics started to change,” said Bernard Banks, sitting on his porch near First and T streets NW. As he spoke, a city truck with Doppler radar cruised through the area to record images of underground pipes.

“I’ve never seen those trucks before until now,” Banks said.

In 2000, the 20001 Zip code was 6 percent white. By 2010, that proportion had grown to a third, the most dramatic increase in white population in the city. The new residents first came as young couples and are now coming as young singles settling in basement apartments — spaces never intended for such use.

While in other neighborhoods developers built towers that graze the sky, in Bloomingdale they looked underground in an effort to preserve the neighborhood’s residential character.

Now, small bulldozers sit outside Victorian-style rowhouses with for-sale signs. And young people with asymmetrical haircuts and hipster glasses seem as common now as the people coming from work in nurses’ scrubs.

“I saw a white girl walking down this street drunk the other day and clenched my heart,’’ lifelong resident Andre Pendleton said as he walked his pit bull, Cupcake, along Rhode Island Avenue. He remembers the days of drugs, gangs and blight, and he likes that now, anyone can walk down the street and feel safe. “There used to be drug dealers on that corner” at Rhode Island Avenue and Third Street NW, he said.

Newer residents dread the tales of the past. When Moffett moved in, he put up bars on his windows. Around the same time, Pendleton and his longtime neighbors finally felt comfortable taking their bars down.

Teri Janine Quinn, president of the Bloomingdale Civic Association, has emphasized goals any neighborhood would want, such as lower crime and cleaner streets. The payoff, she said, includes new late-night taverns and shops that offer gluten-free pizza.

“We’re moving toward something great,’’ said Quinn, 36, a lawyer who plans to open a wine and cheese shop.

The flooding, she said, “is just a bump in the road. A huge bump. We don’t want to be known as the neighborhood that floods.”

But it has long been the neighborhood that floods. People have been complaining about the area’s piping system since the late 1800s.

In 2001, the neighborhood endured such a flooding disaster that the Red Cross was dispatched.

Five years later, DC Water issued a report indicating that building the tunnel, which would take about 20 years, was the only foolproof solution.

As residents wait for the tunnel, DC Water is offering rebates for residents who install devices that block backwater and divert it to the street. Heymann says DC Water is considering whether it can legally limit the number of new developments in the area.

Some residents say the $3,000 rebate for work that some plumbers estimate at $10,000 or more isn’t enough. And they worry that any additional regulations will be too late.

That might be the case for David Byrd, a personal trainer who moved back in with his parents after he got sick when ankle-high water invaded his apartment. It flooded again before his landlord could make repairs. The fixes still haven’t been made.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever move back,’’ said Byrd, 25. “It’s sad, because I love the neighborhood and I’d love to call it home.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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