Editor’s note: This story is part one of a two-part series examining the Sept. 1, 2021, flooding event at Rock Creek Woods Apartments and Congressional Towers in Rockville. Today’s story focuses on how the residents and the management teams of both apartment complexes have handled the flooding aftermath. On Tuesday, reporter Louis Peck will present the findings of a consultant’s report prepared for the county that explores the cause of the flooding.
The rain fell hard and fast in Rockville during the early morning hours of Sept. 1, 2021, as the remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped more than 3 inches in about an hour, creating torrents that soon flooded the lower levels of buildings at two apartment complexes.
When the flooding ended, at least 150 residents had been displaced from their homes and a 19-year-old was dead.
A year later, the residents at the Rock Creek Woods Apartments on Twinbrook Parkway and Congressional Towers on Congressional Lane are still living with the aftermath of the flooding that took the life of Melkin Daniel Cedillo, who lived with his mother in Rock Creek Woods. Cedillo died after going back into his apartment to try to rescue his mother.
Management representatives spoke this week of efforts to help those residents displaced by the flooding and to repair the damage wrought by water that authorities say rose as high as 7 feet in some ground-level apartments.
Residents of Congressional Towers, meanwhile, say they continue to be frustrated by monthly shutoffs of gas, water, electricity and other utilities as the repair work continues.
During the storm, the amount of water flowing underneath two concrete box culverts at Rock Creek Woods increased. A report prepared by Mercado Consultants for the county determined that the northern box culvert experienced increased hydraulic pressure, which pushed water out of an inlet in the culvert that is meant to drain stormwater from nearby parking lots.
According to a Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service incident report, firefighters at Rock Creek Woods rescued victims by using a sledgehammer to smash a glass door. Crews rescued an adult holding a baby inside one apartment; however the report states that due to a language barrier, first responders couldn’t understand that others were communicating that one person in the apartment was unaccounted for.
At Rock Creek Woods, the bottom level of apartments at the buildings that were impacted by flooding have been repaired, but remain uninhabited, according to property manager Denis Grieve. Grieve added that the county intends to add a flood sensor at the Rock Creeks Woods complex by the end of September.
On Monday, it appeared that windows and sliding doors at a handful or units or more have been rebuilt. Clear plastic sheets could be seen taped across those sliding doors and windows where the rising waters had crashed through the year before.
In the late afternoon, several residents who live in the Rock Creek Woods building that flooded and others in the complex, mostly inhabited by Hispanic and Latino residents, greeted their children as they hopped off of school buses after the first day of school.
Multiple residents who lived in the buildings that were impacted said earlier this week that they had lived in their apartments for less than a year, moving in after the flooding had occurred.
In a statement, Rock Creek Woods management said Thursday it is continuing, in conjunction with county agencies, “to support the current residents and those displaced by the damage while alleviating future risk.”
The management team “exceeded conventional and legal standards by working with the County to accommodate affected individuals through temporary housing placement, meal delivery, extended school bus routes and necessary classroom supplies, refund of rents and security deposits, release from rental agreements as well as coordination with local charities for donations,” the statement said. “We are grateful to the County for its assistance as we restored the damaged buildings to welcome back the residents to [Rock Creek Woods] as quickly as possible.”
At Congressional Towers, all residents who lived in the basement or “terrace” level of Building 263 and were present at the time of the flooding were displaced from their homes.
Ken Becker, a partner of the complex’s legal entity Congressional Towers Limited Partnership, told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that a high volume of water on the morning of Sept. 1, 2021, came from a creek that flows near the Woodmont Country Club golf course next door and a “raging torrent” eventually made its way through the complex’s parking lot and to Building 263. The water rose to at least 4 feet inside the corridor of the terrace level, Becker said.
“It’s one of these buildings that’s sort of half-in, half-out of the ground. But the back of it was all ground-level units,” he said.
Becker said the water destroyed corridor walls, seeped into apartment units and forced an evacuation of the building. Additionally, water infiltrated a mechanical room that provided energy for heat, air conditioning and hot water, he said.
“It filled up that boiler room to a height of about 10 feet of water, destroying all of the equipment in that boiler room,” he said.
Juan Carlos, a first-floor resident who lives above the affected floor, said Monday he woke up around 3 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2021, and heard people talking outside.
“I didn’t know what was going on, and I looked out my window and I saw it was flooded and there were people out there,” he said.
Carlos said he then saw firefighters and residents were told to evacuate. Many cars in the parking lot were flooded or had drifted and were damaged, he said, adding that his car wasn’t affected.
First-floor resident Kevin Tucker said he remembers the building’s elevator had been shut down the day of the flooding. One person he talked to had 2 feet of water in their apartment, he said.
“I didn’t even know about the flooding down by the parking lot until the next day, when I walked down there,” he said.
Even though Tucker’s apartment wasn’t flooded, he said he lost some items that were in the storage unit on the bottom floor.
There were no reported injuries at Congressional Towers, but all of the residents of the 13 ground-floor units were displaced. Becker said that in some cases those residents made their own living arrangements, and in others they were relocated to another property managed by Polinger Co., the property management company for Congressional Towers.
Becker said displaced residents were given a stipend, but he declined to say how much.
The first order of business after the flood was getting hot water and air conditioning restarted, he said.
“There was a bunch of things that we had to do before we could even think about reconstruction, and that meant bringing mobile boilers and air conditioning units on the back of flatbed trucks in front of the building. And running a phalanx of plumbing and wiring in the building to connect to those systems,” he said.
One woman who lives on the seventh floor and declined to provide her name for fear of retribution from management said residents could smell mold in the days after the flood. An elevator wasn’t working and she had to use the stairs.
Becker said the elevator pits – an area below grade where the equipment is – were flooded. Both elevators were shut off for a brief period and one of the elevators had a more extended closure, he said.
Crews then spent about a week cleaning up the flooded area, Becker said. “We’re talking about cutting walls that had been infiltrated with water. And we didn’t know at that point how much demolition we were going to do, “he said.
When it came time to rebuild the ground floor, Becker said a team of engineers, consultants and architects determined that they had to demolish the units first because building codes had changed since the building was constructed in the early 1960s.
“Ultimately, it was concluded that we had to do the demolition of that entire level, all of the dwelling units plus some common areas [such as] the laundry room, boiler room,” he said.
The rebuilding of the units started in the spring, and Becker said he hopes the construction will be completed by mid-October. But throughout the spring and summer, residents have complained about the shutoff of utilities. Becker said he understands these inconveniences, but they are necessary during reconstruction.
“We’re coming down the home stretch at this point. But there have been delays due to the complexities of what we’re doing,” he said. “You want to keep utilities on that are six, in some cases seven, levels above you. But when all the utilities run through the basement, it has been a challenge. And we know that it has been a source of disruption of utilities at one point or another as we do construction on this terrace level.”
Carlos said the work going on below him has been noisy at times throughout the spring and summer, but he doesn’t get angry.
“I work from home and I have the option to go to the office, but I don’t mind. It gets loud, but then it dies down … . It’s not constant,” he said.
Resident Needika Goyal recalled that she couldn’t cook when the gas was shut off for a week in August. Water shutoffs are even harder, she said, particularly since she, her husband and daughter all are at home during the day.
A July 29 notice informed residents that terrace-level plumbing work would lead to a daylong water shutdown on Aug. 2 for several units. Residents were asked not to use plumbing during those hours and to use the restrooms at the nearby Rollins Congressional Club.
“I live alone. I don’t have any people here. So if there’s something that’s dysfunctional there’s no other place that I could go to,” said resident Anuj R, who only gave a last initial due to fear of retribution from management.
“They do inform you ahead of time. But there are no other options we can exercise, right? Let’s say the bathroom isn’t [working]. … If I have to use the restroom, I [must] leave and go all the way to the [Rollins Congressional Club].”
Becker said some of the repairs made utility shutoffs for the entire building necessary. During a mid-August gas shutoff that lasted 10 days, the management offered free pizzas one day to residents of Building 263. Becker said the pizza event was “certainly emblematic of our efforts to soften the blow as much as possible.”
“We’ve made no secret of the fact that this is a difficult process,” he said.
Anuj R was not satisfied.
“What sort of a consolation is that? I mean 10 days of a disconnection… pizza,” he said. “After you’ve gone through everything … they said there is free pizza available. One pizza per household.”
Becker said there have not been wholesale rent changes since the flooding, though management has tried to compensate residents in Building 263 on a “case by case basis.” He added that the building has maintained 95% occupancy since the flood.
“We’re not blind to what’s going on,” he said. “We’re trying to retain our tenants.”
Staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed to this story
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org