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When The Weather Threatens Your Home

Ever think about these twin facts. DC is built on a swamp. Capitol Hill is situated on one of the higher spots of the city.  It seems like Hill homeowners would be safe from flooding and other dire weather-related problems.  Hill residents do have the advantage that electric and cable lines are all safely underground. That helps protect homes and businesses from threat of loss of electric power during high winds and rain unlike in other areas of the city.  But city sewer backups are a different story.

Our climate is changing resulting in warmer temperatures and higher than normal rain averages.  This February the precipitation in DC was three inches above average.  The Department of Agriculture upgraded our growing zone a half of a step warmer this year based on the past few years’ temperatures. Meanwhile, the trusty Farmer’s Almanac predicts tropical storms in late August this summer.

The biggest threat for Hill residents is not necessarily flooding from the Anacostia or Potomac Rivers. It’s the back-up of the combined water and sewer lines.  Too much rain arriving too quickly, can overwhelm the city’s system and residents can find their basements full of sewer water and debris.

Research and proactive actions by homeowners can keep disaster away. New city tunnels should help too.

When it happens, it is a costly and frightening mess. There are some steps that residents can take to reduce the risk of this happening. Some involve projects the city is taking on and services the city is making available to homeowners.  But there are also steps individuals can take on their own before and during a disaster.

DC Storm Water Tunnel
In October of 2023, city officials celebrated the opening of the Northeast Boundary Tunnel project, known as the NEBT.  The tunnel, finished a year ahead of schedule, will have the capacity to take wastewater and stormwater runoff and transport it safely to DC’s Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Treatment Plant. For communities affected by the tunnel, it should cut sewage overflows by 98 percent.  The tunnel efforts are a result of a lawsuit filed in February 2000 by the Anacostia Watershed, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, and other groups.  The $2.7-billion project is paid for by DC Water customers through charges on our monthly water bills.  The project is focused on helping to clean up the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, but a great additional benefit is that it will cut down on flooding in many neighborhoods.

Many remember the August, 2023 flood that killed 10 dogs at a doggy day care along Rhode Island Avenue.  The severity of storms is rated by how frequently they are expected to occur. Before the new tunnel, the city’s system could only handle 2-to-5-year storm events. Now, DC Water says the tunnel, a new first line of defense, should stop flooding for up to 15-year storms and would have prevented the day care disaster.

Reporting a Water Event in your Home
Knowing what to do should your home experience a sewer or water flood event is paramount in making sure you will qualify for assistance from the city and your own insurance resources.  Before you even start trying to mop up the mess, you must call the DC Water and Sewer hotline.  The emergency hotline is covered 24 hours a day (although during an emergency you may have to try a couple of times.)

The number is 202-612-3400.  There needs to be a report on file to be able to file a claim against the city for damages, or to qualify for a free back water valve.  It is also important in filing claims with your insurance homeowner’s policy.

The city should send out a team to see where the backup is occurring.  According to the DC Water and Sewer website, DC water employs about 1,000 skilled workers at many locations throughout the city and they are on duty seven days a week.  It is important for you to record the time and date of the event because the city has video across the water and sewer systems and when your claim is processed through the Risk Management Office it will review what was happening in pipes around your home at the time of your sewer event.

It’s important to take pictures of the damage right from the start. In addition, you should retain  all repair receipts from plumbers, cleanup services, lab testing, medical bills and reports, and reconstruction work. Don’t underestimate a sewer event. Raw sewage in your home is a serious health hazard, and a quick wipe with Clorox may not be enough.

There is an official claim form on the DC Water and Sewer website.  Once filed, the Risk Management Office will assign an insurance adjuster to review all the documents and gather official evidence from the city.  The adjuster will make recommendations to the DC Water and Sewer on whether your claim for city reimbursement for damages is accepted or not.

Unfortunately, many Hill residents along with people in other DC neighborhoods have received disappointing results.  The city most often retreats to language that says it is not responsible for the heavy rains. They claim that their videos show their system working at the time and reject the claim.

Insurance companies also can be difficult to work with in the gray area of what is a water flood and a sewer event.  Talking with your insurance agent now to clarify what is and isn’t covered is also important to do. Be careful not to incorrectly categorize the event since that could be used to deny your claim.

Protecting Against the Backup
Of course, the best way to deal with a sewer backup is to take steps to prevent it from happening in the first place. DC government offers one helpful solution. It is called a backwater valve rebate. The city will pay for the purchase and installation of the device designed to stop the flow of sewage when extreme weather hits. If your request is accepted, the city will pay up to $6,000 for your residence.

A backwater valve connects the building to the public sewer in the street.  Basically, the valve allows for the sewer to flow in one direction when activated (triggered by pressure in the sewer line), preventing wastewater from entering your home during a storm event.  Once the storm event is over, your system reverts to its regular operation.  Plumbers give this system a very high rating for preventing future sewage disasters.  In addition to the valve, your system can be equipped with an alarm to alert you that the valve is being activated.  Alarm systems add additional cost, and are not covered by the city grant, but for muti-residence buildings, it may be important to add so all residents know when not to run their water during a storm event.

Property owners in areas where water and sewage flow through the same pipes are eligible to apply for the backup valve rebate if they have had a documented sewer back-up since 2012.  Information on how to apply is available on the DC Water and Sewer site, or by contacting Emanuel Briggs at 202-787-2003 or email edbriggs@dcwater.com.

Combined water and sewer pipes in DC can cause massive damage to Hill homeowners under severe weather conditions. The system is not able to handle the capacity and water/sewage erupts, coming through bathtubs and toilets, leaving toxic sludge.

Other plumbing solutions are available through private plumbing companies. Whether it is exploring problems like the roof and gutter systems not properly draining to foundation and basement drain issues, homeowners should be proactive in exploring options such as sump pumps or French drains or sub floor water relief systems.  The cost of better drainage systems either inside or out is an investment worth making, compared to being struck by a disastrous sewer or water event.  Make sure your plumber is licensed and insured to do work in the District.

A final piece of advice is to ask your neighbors.  Hill residents are full of history and knowledge about happenings on your street and may be able to share a lot of information to inform your decisions.

Bottom line. More storms will come and taking preventive action now – including some the city will help fund – is definitely preferable from the disruption and cost of a sewer backup in your home.

Rindy O’Brien has lived through two Hill sewer events. And has had the city install the back flow system to her building. You can contact Rindy at rindyobrien@gmail.com.

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