As crews worked to clean up the wreckage at District Dogs in the 600 block of Rhode Island Avenue NE, city officials faced tough questions from residents who complained that more should have been done to prevent the tragedy in an area that is prone to flooding.
A year ago this month, the same dog day care found itself underwater amid a storm, with staffers taking pups to higher ground and removing objects from the floor that might get damaged. A D.C. Water official said crews are building an underground tunnel that will allow more water to drain from the street and hope to start utilizing it in September, though construction has been slowed by the pandemic and other factors.
D.C. Fire Chief John Donnelly said Monday night that about 20 dogs were saved from inside the day care as waters again flooded the premises, but others died. He described as heroic the actions of staff members — who rescued many dogs from inside as water rose swiftly to about six feet at the doors of the facility and a glass wall gave way.
“It’s a terrible thing,” Donnelly said. “Unbearable.”
Colleen Costello — an advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents Northeast D.C. neighborhoods including Michigan Park, Brookland and University Heights — posted on Twitter that her dog, Maple, was among those killed. She wrote that Maple and her sister had been found as strays in Texas in late 2021, then rescued and brought to the D.C. area.
Maple, she wrote, became “like a younger sister to my kids, always getting into whatever mischief the kids found themselves in (and being a good sport about their antics).”
“From the time we adopted her, Maple and I had this thing where I would always pick her up and hold her in my arms like a big baby,” Costello wrote. “It didn’t matter how big she got, she was always going to be my baby girl.”
Costello posted on social media Monday night that she was awaiting word from District Dogs and its owner about Maple’s status, but soon followed up that she had received a phone call: “Unfortunately not with the news we wanted or hoped to hear.”
“I can’t believe she’s not here,” Costello wrote. “I don’t want to think about her last moments. It KILLS me I wasn’t there to protect her.”
Costello did not respond to messages and a note left at her home Wednesday. She wrote on social media that floods have been happening in the area for more than a decade and questioned why Rhode Island Avenue was not shut down. The fire department said motorists were trapped on the road amid high waters.
John Lisle, a spokesman for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, said in an email that the area has experienced chronic flooding as far back as the late 1800s, and that D.C. Water’s rain gauges recorded about two inches of rain between 4:30 and 5:15 p.m. Monday.
“That amount of intense rainfall can overwhelm the existing sewer system, which contributes to the type of flooding we saw on Rhode Island Avenue,” Lisle said. “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.”
Lisle said there are storm drains in the area, but if the sewer is filled, the water has nowhere to go. Crews, he said, are working on construction of the Northeast Boundary Tunnel running directly under Rhode Island Avenue, and the water agency has constructed inlets in the roadway under the overpass that will allow storm water to flow into the tunnel.
The tunnel, he said, is expected to be completed in September, and will add 90 million gallons of storage for water. That is sufficient for very serious storms, though Lisle noted it “will not prevent all flooding from intense storms but will lessen their impact.”
Work on the project was accelerated after flooding in 2012, and a September opening would put it ahead of the March 2025 deadline called for by a consent decree, Lisle said. But he conceded officials had hoped to put it in service this past March.
“It has been impacted by COVID, supply chain challenges and the economy’s impact on construction labor,” Lisle said. “There are other factors that impact the schedule as well, including the weather. Currently crews have to evacuate the tunnels for their own safety during rainstorms.”
In August a year ago, Jacob Hensley, the owner of District Dogs, told The Washington Post that his business had flooded three times in less than a month. Flood bags, he said, were in place, but added “our building’s not built like a ship.”
“You can’t protect it from that much water,” Hensley said.
At the time, Hensley said he had been in touch with city officials and was hoping for a solution, whether through an improved storm-drain system or some form of protection for his business.
On Tuesday, Hensley praised his staff in a brief conversation with The Washington Post.
“My team that was on-site during the flood yesterday are absolute heroes,” he said. “They were fighting for their own lives and trying to rescue and save as many dogs as they could. They are nothing short of heroes and they deserve all the credit for all the lives that they saved.”
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.