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D C Floods*

Past the Saturation Point

Heavy Rain Floods Homes, Damages Property in D.C.

By Steven Gray and Andrew DeMillo

Washington Post Staff Writers

Monday, August 13, 2001; Page A01

Torrential downpours Saturday caused the worst flooding in downtown areas of the District in decades, inundating the basement floors of apartment buildings and houses with rainwater and sewage, knocking out power to a 35-block area around Dupont Circle, sweeping at least one car into Rock Creek and plunging another into a sinkhole.

City officials yesterday ordered thousands of sandbags to brace against the possibility of further flooding. Authorities also cautioned motorists that water, debris or other obstructions may block or slow traffic today on some streets and roads in the city and the suburbs that were most severely affected by Saturday's storm.

The storm dropped the heaviest rains in the downtown areas of the District, stretching from Dupont Circle to Upper Northwest. Some locales reported nearly four inches of rain in a little more than an hour Saturday, with totals of as much as eight inches, though the official rainfall total -- recorded at National Airport -- was only .93 inches.

In the Dupont Circle area, where electricity had been out for more than 24 hours, power was restored at 11:30 last night, Potomac Electric Power Co. officials said.

"I've never seen a storm quite like this one that left so much water," said Barbara Pair, deputy director of the District's Emergency Management Agency.

"We've had a few storms that have been of this nature. What makes this one different is how quickly the water came down," said Steven Charva, the agency's disaster recovery manager. "We've got a sewer system that can pull the water away from the streets, but the storm center couldn't handle it this time."

The effects were apparent across the region: Four people were killed in traffic accidents in Prince George's County that officials said probably were weather-related; fast-rising water spilled across Rock Creek Parkway, leaving mud a foot deep in places; trees were downed from Gaithersburg to the George Washington Memorial Parkway; and planes stacked up at the three regional airports, where dozens of flights were canceled or delayed.

National Weather Service meteorologist Melody Pascgetag attributed the severity of Saturday's flooding to the slow pace of the afternoon storm. She said thunderstorms are likely again today, and temperatures are expected to reach the mid-80s.

District officials estimated that at least 1,000 structures in the city sustained some form of flooding.

"There's a lot of people who consistently have their basements flooded. But this is a pretty major problem citywide," said Peter G. LaPorte, director of the Emergency Management Agency.

The inadequacy of the city's sewer system came rushing home for many in the Dupont Circle area.

Brian Diffell and his roommate lost most of their belongings when their basement apartment on Corcoran Street NW suddenly filled with three feet of water. His roommate's girlfriend was there when the water starting pouring in.

"All of a sudden she heard a gurgling, gushing sound," said Diffell, 23. "Water mixed with a little bit of sewage started coming out of every appliance in the bathroom. It came from every drain."

District officials were also trying to determine what caused a sewer line to rupture, opening a 20-foot-wide swath of the Palisades Safeway's parking lot that swallowed a car. As engineers surveyed the 25-foot-deep hole in the lot, near the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and 48th Place NW, a four-door Oldsmobile lay inside.

"This is one of the many problems around the city," LaPorte said as he looked out into the broken layers of asphalt, cement and mud.

Pepco officials said the rain probably caused the electrical explosions that crippled the power supply from 14th to 17th streets and from N to U streets NW.

Last week's four-day heat wave sent power consumption to record levels, and "operating at those maximum loads, the cables get hot," Pepco spokesman Bob Dobkin said last night. "When you get doused with torrential rain, it's a recipe for disaster."

Crews had worked all day yesterday to restore power to the approximately 3,000 customers who had been without it in the area since about 8:30 p.m. Saturday. Dobkin said it was time-consuming because crews discovered more damaged cables than expected.

Owners of restaurants and bars along 17th Street NW spent much of the day calculating losses, repairing crashed computer systems and removing fish and meat left sitting from the night before, when police ordered them closed. "This is a mess. We had no business last night," said Michael French, co-owner of the Mercury Grill, where about 12 inches of water flooded the basement.

The anguish extended to nearby residents. "I can't even fix a pot of coffee," Cheri Clark said outside her Dupont Circle high-rise.

An additional 5,000 Pepco customers, mostly in the District, remained without power by late afternoon. All but about 850 of the 50,000 homes that lost power in Northern Virginia over the weekend had power restored by 5 p.m. yesterday, Dominion Virginia Power officials said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to deliver about 15,000 sandbags to the District by today to help if flooding persists. Residents can call the Emergency Management Agency, at 202-727-6161, to arrange to pick up sandbags.

District officials opened a damage assessment telephone hot line (202-673-2101, Ext. 1141) so they could begin to gauge the severity of the damage before deciding whether to seek aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Travelers who arrived at Reagan National Airport yesterday faced long lines as people whose flights had been delayed or canceled Saturday tried to get out of town and others tried to leave before any new storms could approach.

Tim Thorburg, of Silver Spring, returned home Saturday night after his flight to Dayton, Ohio, was canceled. Yesterday afternoon, he grinned before boarding a flight.

"Today is much better so far. . . . It's busy, but at least my flight is leaving today," he said. "It's the weather; what can you do about it?"

Portions of Rock Creek Parkway and Beach Drive remained closed as National Park Service crews cleaned up mud, fallen branches and collapsed trees.

Crews hoped to reopen the roads by rush hour today, an Interior Department worker said.

But the road work came too late for Numa Blanco and his pregnant wife, Judy Diaz, whose car was swept down Broad Branch Road into Rock Creek on Saturday. Yesterday they were looking for the unidentified man in a Volvo who saved their lives.

They had headed out for a restaurant in the District in their new Acura, unaware of any storm warnings, when they hit a wall of water on Broad Branch Road, the couple recalled yesterday.

Diaz put the car in reverse, but it shut off, so her husband jumped out to see whether he could push it to higher ground, she said.

"When I opened the door, all the water rushed in," said Blanco, 24, a cabinetmaker. "I said, 'Let's go. Leave the car here.' We were just trying to get out of there. She was holding my hand, but the water swept me from her."

Blanco said the current swept him up and he eventually slammed against some rails. Diaz tripped on something and injured her leg. She lost sight of her husband but was able to grab onto some guardrails.

Then the stranger arrived out of nowhere.

The man rescued her and then pulled her husband from the water and drove them to a recreation center, where an ambulance took them to Sibley Memorial Hospital. Diaz was treated for a sprained ankle, and her fetus was unharmed.

The couple went to look for their car yesterday and found joggers peering at something over a small bridge: the Acura.

"It was all the way underneath the creek," Blanco said.

For now, though, they are more concerned about finding the man who helped them. All they know is that his car had St. Albans stickers on it.

"I know that if it wasn't for him or those rails there, we would have been swept away," Diaz said. "We would have drowned."

Staff writers Patricia Davis, Abhi Raghunathan and Martin Weil contributed to this report.

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