As climate change takes hold, chronic flooding is not affecting all residents equally.
This project was supported with funds from the Pulitzer Center and Spotlight DC. Hola Cultura co-published this story with the Washington City Paper on Friday, August 18, 2023.
When teacher’s aide Elizabeth Hall first purchased her home in Capitol View, a neighborhood located on the eastern edge of D.C., she was excited to become one of the first members of her family to own property she could pass down to future generations.
But a few months after moving in, heavy rainfall flooded her finished basement. Water seeped through the foundation and soaked the carpet the previous owner had recently installed. At first, she considered it a one-time problem, but the flooding continued. Now, 26 years later, she says any time the basement floods, she disassociates from it.
“When there’s water down there, I don’t even want to look at it,” says Hall. “There’s nothing I can do, there’s nowhere for me to sweep it off.”
The carpet and furniture eventually had to be removed. The stains and damage on the wooden baseboards rise a couple of inches off the floor, serving as a constant reminder of how high the water level has reached on far too many occasions to count.
Ever since 1997, when Hall moved into half of a red brick duplex on 55th Street NE, across from the Maya Angelou Public Charter School campus, the loss and stress of living with unpredictable flooding has taken a toll on both her peace of mind and finances. Hall estimates she has spent more than $4,000 on flood-proofing her basement, not to mention losing the ability to use the space for anything but laundry. At one point, she had her nephew and his family stay in the basement, but water entering the space forced them out before long.
“I moved into a house with a finished basement that I couldn’t use,” says Hall, who grew up nearby in Capitol Heights and now works in Prince George’s County.
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One of the worst flooding episodes to sweep through the neighborhood took place in September 2020, when torrential rain burst into D.C. and surrounding regions. Hall’s neighbor Kenyon Suggs recorded a video of the deluge and has recorded many other recent floods, documenting water gushing from manhole covers on East Capitol Street, water pooling by the street’s storm drains, and the rising water engulfing his yard. This is a problem that climate change is making worse, according to experts and D.C. government officials who warn that residential flooding problems throughout the District will require costly and complicated solutions, with residents living in D.C.’s poorest wards bearing a disproportionate burden.
This story is the first in a series of articles on the District’s flooding problems. Over the coming weeks, Hola Cultura will share the stories of residents dealing with flooding. We will investigate why certain areas in the city flood more than others and see what solutions are available. This work will build on Hola Cultura’s reporting on D.C.’s heat islands, which showed that not all residents in the District experience extreme heat in the same way. There are commonalities in these city-shaping injustices that have left some communities more vulnerable to flooding and severe heat.
Types of Flooding in D.C.
D.C. is susceptible to riverine, coastal, and interior flooding, like the recent deluge on August 14. That afternoon and evening, heavy rains led to interior flooding that rapidly swamped the area around the Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood Metro Station in Northeast, resulting in the deaths of 10 dogs at the dog care center District Dogs.
Riverine flooding occurs when rivers overflow and spill onto nearby land. In D.C.’s case, heavy rain in the northern portion of the Potomac River watershed (which extends all the way to West Virginia) can cause this kind of flooding. Although D.C. is not on the coast, the Potomac River flows into the Chesapeake Bay, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean, meaning tropical storms and hurricanes can also propel water up the Potomac River and cause coastal flooding.
Low-lying areas around the National Mall, in direct proximity to the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, saw serious riverine flooding in 1936 and 1942. There was also a severe case of interior flooding that cost millions of dollars in damages to downtown federal buildings in the Federal Triangle flood of 2006.
Interior flooding, also known as flash flooding or urban flooding, is a result of heavy rainfall overwhelming the city’s sewer systems. Much of D.C.—and many other U.S. cities—was built atop submerged streams, with buildings, roads, and sidewalks replacing trees and natural vegetation. Asphalt and concrete surfaces do not absorb rainwater like the vegetation they replaced.
A third of D.C.’s sewage system consists of combined sewers built more than a century ago. In a combined sewer system, both sewage and stormwater pass through the same pipes. During dry conditions, the contents flow directly to the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Southwest D.C. During periods of intense rainfall, this combination of sewage and stormwater can overwhelm the system, requiring a diversion to the nearest rivers and creeks to prevent flooding in homes and businesses.
But, as we saw on Monday, diversion does not always work. During the flash flooding on August 14, water reportedly rose rapidly to about 6 feet and broke through the glass wall at the District Dogs facility on Rhode Island Avenue NE. Despite the building passing inspection after flooding last year, this part of D.C. has a history of flooding that dates back to the 19th century, according to John Lisle, DC Water’s vice president of marketing and communications.
“This location under the Metro overpass is a low point that acts as a bowl, and stormwater flows into it from multiple directions, including from the tracks above. There are storm drains there, but if the sewer is filled to capacity, there is nowhere for that water to go,” Lisle writes in an email.
Lisle points out that DC Water’s rain gauges in Northeast D.C. measured about 2 inches of rain in a 45-minute period. That’s more than half of the rain we usually receive during the entire month of August, according to the National Weather Service’s Washington, D.C., precipitation report.
A project that will mitigate this kind of flooding, Lisle says, is the Northeast Boundary Tunnel, which passes under Rhode Island Avenue NE and will add 90 million gallons to D.C.’s stormwater capacity. This tunnel is intended to alleviate the flooding and past sewage backups in neighborhoods such as Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park. However, Lisle cautions that the tunnel “will not prevent all flooding from intense storms but will lessen their impact.”
Over the past few years, severe flash floods have overwhelmed the city’s sewer pipes several times. In July 2019, close to a month’s worth of rain fell in some areas over the course of an hour. The September 2020 storm that submerged Suggs’ yard flooded several roads, and many drivers had to be rescued.
Nearly a year later, in the early morning of Sept. 1, 2021, Melkin Daniel Cedillo, 19, died trying to save his mother after stormwater from the remnants of Hurricane Ida cascaded into their lower level apartment at the Rock Creek Woods Apartments in Rockville. His mother was already outside, but Cedillo had not seen her. About 150 people who lived at the complex were displaced as a result of that one flood.
English basements and garden-level apartments are a cost-effective way to live in the city, but they also present a growing risk for many residents, such as Arturo Acuvera, who lived in a basement apartment on Sherman Avenue NW in Columbia Heights when we first met in September 2022. At the time, he described how the street becomes more of a fast moving river during intense rainfall. Stormwater would cascade down his front steps “like a waterfall” and into his living space. A few weeks ago, after his apartment flooded again, he gave up on District life and moved to Hyattsville, where the rent is also cheaper.
Acuvera’s former Columbia Heights apartment is more than a seven-mile drive from Hall’s house, but they have something in common: They’ve both experienced flooding despite not living in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s designated floodplains.
“We weren’t even recognized as being in the flood zone,” Hall says, recalling her surprise when she first investigated her neighborhood’s flooding problems.
Hall and Acuvera are among a growing number of residents in the District and nationwide who are dealing with chronic deluges where no severe floodings should occur, at least according to FEMA’s flood maps.
While experts say FEMA generally does a good job of representing flood risk stemming from overflowing waterways, the federal agency’s flood maps have been criticized for not showing the risk of more localized flooding caused by heavy precipitation and overwhelmed drainage systems.
To create these maps, FEMA analyzes historic information such as past floods and water levels to determine the probability of flood events. The benchmarks FEMA uses are the 100-year floodplain, which connotes an area with a one in 100 chance of flooding in a given year, and the 500-year floodplain, which has a one in 500 chance of happening each year. The FEMA maps are important because, historically, local governments have used them to set zoning regulations and other rules. FEMA also uses these maps to determine flood insurance prices nationwide.
Experts have expressed concerns that development regulations and sewage systems in D.C. and around the U.S. are not adapting quickly enough to the changing climate. Advancing technology is also spotlighting the shortcomings of this traditional approach to assessing flood risk.
The New York research nonprofit First Street Foundation recently published its 8th national risk assessment, based on its own precipitation and flood models that dramatically expand the number of U.S. households with flooding exposure. According to the report, nearly 10 million homes not included in FEMA’s Special Flood Hazard Areas are at risk. On D.C.’s Risk Factor profile, First Street estimates that more than 16,000 properties have about a one in four chance of being “severely affected by flooding over the next 30 years.” That’s nearly 20 percent of all D.C. properties, according to the report.
Who is most affected in D.C.?
Some of the greatest flood risks in the District are faced by residents of limited means who aren’t necessarily prepared to bear the costs that come with flooding: expensive flood-prevention pumps and other equipment, costly clean-up work, and flood insurance premiums. More than 90 percent of single-family homes located in the flood hazard zones depicted in D.C.’s FEMA flood map are in wards 7 and 8, where the median household income is less than half of the median household income citywide.
A growing body of research shows how in D.C. and the rest of the country, racism and segregation played a clear role in how neighborhoods developed, leaving many lower-income communities—with large populations of immigrants, seniors, and people of color—at a higher risk of flooding and many other environmental hazards. While climate change is worsening these disparities, it did not create them. The inequality present throughout D.C. is deeply rooted in past discrimination and racism.
Groundwork USA, a network of local organizations focused on environmental justice, partnered with 15 cities for their Climate Safe Neighborhoods project and produced story maps that show correlation between extreme heat and flood vulnerability and neighborhoods that were deemed “declining” or “hazardous” by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in their security maps.
D.C. wasn’t one of the cities included in the project, but the D.C. history organization Prologue DC studied how housing discrimination unfolded in the District to produce their “Legacy of Racial Covenants” map. This story map shows how much of the Black population of D.C. lived in neighborhoods in the easternmost sections of Northeast or in Southeast around Barry Farm, which the Freedmen’s Bureau established as a Black community in the immediate aftermath of the abolishment of slavery. Many homes in the neighborhoods that White people flocked to, such as Anacostia, Hillcrest and Randle Highlands, originally had covenants that prohibited Black people from buying there in the early 1900s.
The Federal Housing Authority played a significant role in directing investment and development in D.C. Prologue DC’s story map of the FHA’s activity displays how the agency explicitly used race to categorize neighborhoods in their 1937 Residential Sub-Areas map. For example, the FHA gave a section of Northeast D.C. comprising Capitol View and other historically Black neighborhoods such as Deanwood and Marshall Heights an H, the lowest grade in their classification system. Tasked with providing mortgage loans to better the housing market, the FHA influenced new private development in D.C. in the late 1930s, little of which reached communities where Black people lived.
Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, as neighborhoods began to integrate, many White residents left wards 7 and 8. “Covenants had effectively assigned value to entire neighborhoods based on the race of their residents,” Prologue DC’s notes on the legacy of covenants state, “leading white families to move out of areas now perceived as declining in value.”
Many of the developments that did come to communities east of the Anacostia River were not welcomed. The city seized parts of Black neighborhoods, including Marshall Heights and Lincoln Heights, to create public housing. I-295 cut directly through neighborhoods like Hillsdale, displacing residents and bringing car and noise pollution to nearby homes. It also got rid of vegetation that had originally served to absorb water during heavy rains.
“That highway system basically forced water into the neighborhoods without any stormwater infrastructure being installed with it,” says Dennis Chestnut, founder of Groundwork Anacostia River DC. Growing up in the Hillbrook neighborhood of Northeast, Chestnut noticed how the basement in his family’s home began to flood when he was in elementary school after the construction of I-295. It became another structure—in conjunction with the Anacostia River—that separated portions of wards 7 and 8 from the rest of the city.
Today, more than 80 percent of ward 7 and 8’s residents are Black. The Hispanic population in these wards has also increased. According to the Urban Institute, each ward received nearly 2,000 new Hispanic residents between 2010 and 2020. However, the report notes these new residents may not all be moving east of the Anacostia River—the boundary of both wards currently extends into neighborhoods west of the Anacostia. (It’s possible there are more residents of color in these wards, given the census’ history of undercounting Latino individuals, Black people and Native Americans.)
Anabell Martinez, the housing director at the Central American Resource Center, has noticed these migration patterns. Many of her clients have moved from Ward 1 to wards 4 and 5, though some have also ventured east of the Anacostia in search of lower costs of living.
“[Wards] 7 and 8 are the future for our people,” Martinez says. “In those areas, one can find cheaper rent.”
Why it floods on 55th Street NE
Hall’s street is in a low-lying area, and nearby streets, such as East Capitol, Ames, Blaine and a residential alleyway, slope down toward 55th Street NE, creating a pool for the water to converge.
“You could almost drive a canoe down here,” says Richard Johnson, a neighbor of Hall’s who has lived in Capitol View his entire life. Johnson estimates he has spent around $20,000 on flood prevention installations in his home.
According to Nicholas Bonard, chief of the Water Resources Protection and Mitigation Branch at the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, the valley-like nature of 55th Street NE makes it more vulnerable to flooding.
“Two variables that can often explain higher interior flood risk are whether it is at a low point compared to its surroundings and if there is a high groundwater table. The intersection of 55th Street NE and East Capitol Street unfortunately has both these characteristics, which makes it more susceptible to flooding during heavy rains,” Bonard says.
Most of the thousands of dollars Hall spent on floodproofing went to replacing pipes and installing a second sump pump in her basement. Due to frequent flooding, both pumps have broken down and now need to be replaced, but Hall does not plan to replace them due to the costs. She also purchased flood barriers that absorb water and expand when they get wet.
Water often pools in front of her house during the street’s frequent deluges, Hall says. Once, the water rose so high it entered her car. Flooding has totaled cars in other parts of the ward, representing another way chronic flooding erodes the finances of local residents.
Dealing with so many floods has made Hall’s neighbor Suggs extra vigilant of the weather.
“It’s made me a bit of a meteorologist. Whenever I see a hurricane hitting North Carolina, I get a little nervous and try to prepare,” he says. The worst flooding he’s seen has generally been during hurricane season, which officially runs from June 1 to November 30. In addition to the $20,000 he estimates he has spent on floodproofing his home, Suggs also makes sure that the drains near his home are free of trash and debris.
Suggs’ semi-detached Colonial-style house on East Capitol Street NE faces 55th Street NE. During storms, the backyard becomes more like a shallow pool, with the grass completely submerged. Suggs says he’s had to relocate his children’s birthday parties more than once due to the swampy conditions.
The multiple days of heavy rain that D.C. experienced in early July did not cause severe flooding around his home.
“Thank God we are halfway through July,” he told us earlier this summer.
A year after the severe September 2020 storm, the Office of the City Administrator established the D.C. Flood Task Force, aimed at equitably addressing D.C.’s flooding problems. As part of this process, the task force is creating a new flood risk model that they hope will help residents become more aware of flood risks by showing the areas that are prone to flooding due to heavy rainfall and sewer issues.
First Street plans to incorporate the data from its risk assessment into its new modeling tool, Risk Factor. Since it debuted last year, Risk Factor allows anyone with Internet access to look up an address and determine the likelihood of the property flooding. Real estate sites such as Redfin now include Risk Factor findings in their searches.
The Northeast Boundary Tunnel, which is expected to be operational by late September according to Lisle at DC Water, is part of that agency’s $2.7 billion Clean Rivers Project. Another element of the project is the installation of water absorbing green infrastructure, such as rain gardens and permeable pavement.
Chris Weiss, the executive director of the DC Environmental Network, feels optimistic about the D.C. government’s handling of flooding and stormwater risks.
“The District government, with its Climate Ready DC and Resilient DC reports, flood mapping efforts and coordination of agencies though the DC Flood Task Force, have done a good preliminary job of starting to outline how the climate crisis will make coastal and rainfall flooding increasingly likely,” Weiss says. He also stresses the importance of staying the course on these upgrades and securing funding in the midst of the current constraints on D.C.’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
These infrastructure projects are costly, but they are a financial burden the government can bear better than individual residents. They are also crucial to ensuring that enormous investments made by D.C. residents to repair immediate flooding damages were not in vain. When that flooding happens in front of your home and water is entering your property, the immediate repair costs can be an enormous burden for an individual or family.
“It’s just taken time to realize the extreme of it,” says Hall, who gets emotional reliving these flooding incidents.
After more than 20 years living in Capitol View, Hall was able to purchase flood insurance for the first time this year. She is also on the waiting list for an assessment of her home as part of FloodSmart Homes, a new program DOEE is piloting. Once DOEE completes the assessment, an inspector will suggest floodproofing installations and prioritize minimizing costs.
While these initiatives can help with cleanup in the immediate aftermath of a flood, Hall and her neighbors are hoping for longer term solutions that will allow them to build generational wealth.
“We bought our houses because we wanted to own property, but also so that we can have some family legacy to pass on,” Hall says. “One of the reasons why a lot of us in the city don’t have that is because of problems like this.”
This story was reported and written by Hola Cultura’s assistant editor Marcelo Jauregui-Volpe with story editing by the organization’s executive director Christine MacDonald and copyediting by Michelle Benitez, an intern in Hola Cultura’s Storytelling Program for Experiential Learning, which brings together young people between 16 and 25 with the organization’s professional staff to produce stories and special projects for Hola Cultura’s online magazine.