“What really happened to all of our basements?” she said. “What caused this immense amount of sewage that came out of our toilet and our shower?”
D.C. Water officials tried to explain the mess during a community videoconference call Wednesday evening. The utility also offered financial help for homeowners struggling to clean up, referring to the downpour as a “100-year storm event.”
Climate change is causing more short, high-intensity storms, the utility said. D.C.’s century-old water system is aging and stressed by development. Plans for green infrastructure and an overflow tunnel would help prevent flooding but are not yet online. And the existing 124 million-gallon Anacostia River Tunnel — running seven miles from RFK Stadium to the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant — filled in about 35 minutes.
“Even when our system was working to its maximum capacity, it just could not accommodate this event,” said Kishia L. Powell, D.C. Water’s chief operating officer.
The storm walloped portions of D.C. and its immediate suburbs, severely drenching a narrow corridor while areas a few miles away stayed dry. Between two and six inches of rain fell in an area from southern Montgomery County to Alexandria, including parts of D.C. and Prince George’s and Arlington counties. Streams in the area rose up to eight feet in an hour, spilling onto residential streets, inundating highways and requiring water rescues.
The 2.88 inches of rain recorded at Reagan National Airport set a daily record for Sept. 10, topping a mark that had stood since 1950.
During Wednesday evening’s conference call, D.C. Water committed $1.5 million in cleanup relief for those who haven’t been able to “dewater” — dry out — their homes, up to $5,000 per property. The company will also install backflow valves, which can cost up to $6,000 per property, to prevent the stuff that should be flowing out of homes from finding its way back in.
D.C. Water General Manager David L. Gadis said staffers at the utility “do not see flooding as a normal occurrence.”
“We are doing everything in our power to reduce the likelihood of floods and the severity of floods right now,” he said. “We are making strong progress on both those fronts.”
Some Edgewood residents want more progress at a faster pace.
Jessica Sarstedt, who moved to Edgewood in 2013, said the Sept. 10 rain was “nothing this neighborhood hasn’t seen before.” But this time, around the same time Miles’s home was flooded, Sarstedt discovered “a geyser” of sewage water coming into her basement through a floor drain, covering the floor with six inches of muck.
“I started screaming,” she said. “I ran outside to solicit help from my neighbors. I realized every single house on the block was experiencing the same thing.”
Days later, her basement was gutted down to the studs. She and her neighbors have thrown away couches, appliances and family heirlooms. Some have no hot water because their water heaters were compromised. And after D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) visited the neighborhood last week, Sarstedt was disappointed in the city’s failure to offer financial support for rebuilding after remediation.
“This is black water,” she said. “This is water with covid-19 potentially in it. You've got to move really fast to mitigate your home. That requires often thousands of dollars that many people in this community don't have, lots of elderly people without any assistance. It was just a nightmare.”
At a news conference Monday, Bowser said she directed D.C. Water to write an “after-action report” that the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency will review.
“All of us can empathize and imagine how disturbing a situation that is, to have water and sewage back up in your house,” Bowser said. She did not commit to helping residents recoup financial costs if their insurance will not pay for the damage.
D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt sought to reassure residents who were worried the sewage might spread the novel coronavirus.
“We do know that the primary method of transmission of the virus is through respiratory particles,” she said. “I would not have concerns at this point that there is active virus that has the ability to transmit the virus in wastewater.”
D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who represents parts of the city hit hardest by the flooding, said he had seen the flood’s aftermath during visits with several residents in the ward. He said he was pleased with the utility’s decision help residents pay for damage to their homes.
“That’s only a start,” he said in a statement. “But my expectation is that D.C. Water and the executive ensure that those impacted, especially our seniors and vulnerable residents, receive the relief they need.”
For Miles, the sewage disaster has come at a bad time amid the pandemic.
A store manager at Tysons Corner Center, she returned to work when the mall reopened, but her overtime pay has dried up. In addition, she and her mother, who works in the Prince George’s County public school system, recently spent $30,000 to remodel their home, and their repair fund was dry even before the flood.
They had not remodeled the basement, Miles said, but any financial assistance will go a long way, with repair bills sure to pile up.
“I don't think it's too much to ask for a little bit of help,” she said.