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When Olivia Brown last week spotted a land grader and a dump truck in the parking lot of the church above her home on Hunter Place SE in Anacostia, her spirits soared. To be sure, most people don’t welcome earth-moving equipment—which generally promises only noise, a big mess, and eventually more neighbors—into their neighborhoods. But for Brown and other Hunter Place residents, a little mud and the clank of heavy machinery are a small price to pay for the salvation promised by the yellow giants.
The machines sit above a distended brown heap of fill that excavators for the Anacostia Metro contractors plopped in Brown’s back yard 10 years ago. The minimountain, which has taken the place of a gentle slope dotted by 200-year-old trees, rises 10-15 feet above the property line of the Hunter Place town houses. Sitting on land leased to Metro by Our Lady of Perpetual Help to Metro in 1985, the ugly heap has nurtured a small field of trashy trees and knee-high clumps of weeds.
On most days, the mound is merely an eyesore. But when heavy rains come, it turns into a volcano of silt, mud, and water. The runoff flows down the mound through a well-traveled network of gullies, many of which lead straight to the town houses. Over the years, the residents and the church have experimented with temporary schemes to channel the runoff away from their homes. But each one has failed, and the town houses have turned into a permanent sewer basin for the mound of unsecured fill. The residents’ pleas for a more lasting sort of help—the permanent removal or regrading of the mound—from Metro and the church have been no more effective.
For the Hunter Place residents, the trouble started shortly after Metro’s excavation contractor built the mound in the summer of 1986. In early July of that year, the runoff from a fierce rainstorm washed out their yards and landed in their basements. The Joneses, who live two doors from Brown, were hit the hardest: They found a room full of wedding presents in their basement wading in three inches of water. The flood victims pumped the water from their basements and shoveled the silt from their yards, inaugurating a ritual they now repeat after every strong storm.
By now, the residents have “learned to live around” the problem, in the words of one resident, and could teach seminars on replanting grass and flowers and eradicating mildew from basements. “I just say, ‘All right, we’ve been blessed,’ when the water doesn’t come in,” says Bibian Burris, who purchased one of the town houses about a year ago.
Robert Jones, who has never banished visions of the inundated wedding presents, maintains an arsenal of hoses and pumps to free his yard and basement from the pools that form after rainfalls. “It’s always there, always ready to be pumped,” says Jones.
Brown takes a passive approach to coping with the floods. Before venturing into her back yard, she takes one step on the grass. If water oozes around her shoes, she heads back inside. Which means she almost never uses her yard.
The neighbors owe their predicament to misguided decisions by Metro and inaction by the District government and the church. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
“The original grading plan made sense,” says Dorn McGrath, a George Washington University professor and city planner who monitored the Metro construction in Anacostia. But for reasons that were never explained to the residents, District engineers scrapped the original grading plan, which called for grading the hill and installing a network of drainpipes. Drainage routes sprung up willy-nilly; the first hard rains formed large gullies and chose their resting places indiscriminately. In addition to flooding the Hunter Place town houses, the runoff dumps onto the street, washing out what remains of a parking lot and dumping mounds of silt on the road.
Instead of pushing for a permanent fix, the church has opted for temporary solutions that are no match for Mother Nature; the 5-foot green plastic retaining wall at the property line of the town houses stands as nothing more than a pesky detour for the rushing waters. And the runoff has shown little interest in following the large plastic drainage pipes embedded in the mound by the Metro contractor. “Those pipes are not a permanent or dignified solution,” says McGrath. As the pools of water in back of the Hunter Place town houses attest, runoff doesn’t like to be told where to go.
Trees and scrub plants have randomly rooted and slowed the erosion, but storm warnings still send the long-suffering residents in search of bigger sump pumps.
It’s not as if the mudslides haven’t caught the attention of the District’s elected leaders. Nadine Winter, a former Ward 6 councilmember, worked from the start to get Metro, the church, and the contractors to regrade the heap in accordance with the original, discarded plans. “But then the contractor just went ahead and put big black drainage pipes in the gullies,” says McGrath.
Anacostia’s sliding mountain is a problem custom-made for the District, because no one is taking responsibility for it. Metro supervised the excavation that created the mound but has since packed its bags for projects in other parts of the city. The contractor who actually built the mound is not registered as a corporation in the District and is no longer listed in area phone books.
In 1994, Council Chairman David Clarke toured the area and pledged city attention to the problem, but that was the last the locals saw of Clarke. Neighbors say that current Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil initially expressed interest in the issue, but they say he did not make himself available to meet with them.
The city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) is another player in the game of buck-passing over the mountain. “Our role in this is not grand,” says DCRA spokeswoman Janet McCormick. DCRA, she says, doesn’t own or operate construction equipment and can’t order the problem fixed. Instead, DCRA has been reduced to wringing a commitment from the church to regrade the hill and plant vegetation that will hold it in place.
Just like any secular leaser, the church is required to correct what its leasee (Metro) fouled up. But even though it raked in a windfall from hosting the mound, the church has done nothing to stop its ravages. That means diverting the runoff away from the neighbors’ back yards and into the city’s drainage system. The church did not return phone calls on the matter.
Right now the church is more worried about its own property than its neighbors’. The earth movers, after all, are installing a new drain to control flooding in the church parking lot; they promise no relief for the downstreamers. Stopping the Hunter Place floods will require another design, another contractor, and another six to seven months, according to DCRA.
Hunter Place residents, however, expect to see brown streams headed into their back yards for years. So Brown is making no new plans for her soggy plot. And Jones will hang onto his hoses and pumps.—Bonnie Cain