The Flooding Triangle: Some of D.C.'s Iconic Buildings in Crosshairs of Future Flooding

In 2006, the rain just would not stop.

"Water accumulated on Constitution Avenue and backed up on 9th Street until it overcame our driveway here," Tim Edwards said.  As the building’s facilities manager, Edwards has worked inside the Archives building for more than two decades.

Some of the most valuable artifacts in our nation are at risk when the rain won’t stop. Tisha Thompson of the News4 I-Team reports.

He said he’s never seen anything like the storm of 2006, when he watched water pour down the driveway from 9th Street, through the Archive’s metal gate, into an internal moat and through giant wooden doors leading into the building’s basement level underneath Constitution Avenue.

Edwards said the water just kept pouring in, snaking through hallways until it filled their newly refurbished theater, swamping the stage and seats with water.

McGowan Theater with water 6-26-06 Photo by Jeffrey Reed for the National Archives
Jeffrey Reed
The National Archives building during the 2006 flood.

Archive staff renovated the theater in 2006. But, since they are the nation’s history keepers, Edwards said they kept some of the dirt and debris left behind by the flood inside the building’s electrical vault.

He showed us how the flood line went high above his head and swallowed huge electrical transformers. “They were completely under water,” Edwards said. “Completely underwater."

“I think 2006 was a little bit of a wake-up call,” Julia Koster of the National Capital Planning Commission said.

Koster visited the corner of 17th Street and Constitution, which she said is one of the lowest points in the city. "If you think of where I'm standing, I'm at the bottom of a bowl,” she said. “There are hills actually all the way around Washington, D.C. and so when it rains, all the water comes down the edges of the bowl and comes pretty much to this location right here."

Koster said the District has a history of major flooding, starting in 1889 when storms overwhelmed Pennsylvania Avenue, and again in 1936 and 1942 when the Potomac River submerged the National Mall.

1889 Flood
Pennsylvania Ave. in the 1889 flood.

Photographs from that time show how the Jefferson Memorial looks like a small island, cut off from the rest of the District.

That’s why the Army Corps of Engineers put in the new floodwall on 17th Street just south of Constitution Avenue last year, filling the last hole in a levee built to protect the city from future river flooding.

1942 Flood
The Jefferson Memorial and National Mall during the 1942 flood.

Koster showed us how metal plates that look like square manhole covers can be removed to insert tall posts. She said the National Park Service practices each year to quickly “build a post and panel system stacking up metal panels that stretch all the way across 17th Street,” connecting the two ends of a granite wall you can see on either side of 17th Street near the Lockkeeper’s House.

But Koster and multiple other federal and local agencies tell the News 4 I-Team this levee system won't prevent what happened in 2006 from happening again because that flood wasn't caused by the Potomac River but instead by rain overwhelming the city's storm drains.

In the wake of the 2006 storm, the government created new floodplain maps that took into account this type of “internal” flooding. These new “Flood Insurance Rate Maps” put the Federal Triangle and many of our national museums in the center of the flood zone.

The National Archives didn’t wait for the new maps to start installing flood protection around its building.  Edwards said they built brick walls around the building's air intake system, waterproofed all external doors and installed two floodwalls, one on 9th Street and another on 12th Street, which will automatically rise when storm drains fill with water.

Standing in front of the floodwall at the 9th Street entrance, Edwards told us, “I sleep a lot better with this here."

But it's a different story across the street, where the General Services Administration operates six major office buildings, including the Internal Revenue Service's headquarters.

According to a report by the Treasury Department’s Inspector General for Tax Administration, the 2006 flood caused more than $13 million in damage at the IRS building. The building was swamped by 24 feet of water, forcing 2,200 employees to relocate for more than six months.

But the GSA tells the News 4 I-Team it spent the last nine years studying the problem and only submitted a funding request two months ago for $8 million in “numerous flood measures” at the IRS and most of its other buildings in the Federal Triangle. 

According to a GSA spokesperson, only the Herbert C. Hoover Department of Commerce Building has made any significant changes, including relocating the chiller plant, transformers, switchgears and emergency generators to higher ground within the building and installing "flood doors at the steam tunnel entrances to prevent the building from flooding during a 200-year rainfall event."

But the GSA told us it may need to rely on sandbags at its other buildings in the Federal Triangle, including the IRS, during a future flood.

Down the street, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of American History shut down for four days in 2006, but a spokeswoman said they haven’t made any changes since then because "only a little bit of carpet was damaged" in the American History museum.

She told us she didn’t think any of the artifacts stored on the ground and basement levels of those two museums would be in danger during a future flood.

But the Smithsonian installed flood protections at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. The 2006 flood reached nine feet above sea level at the museum's location, and the 100-year flood level is 12.5 feet above sea level, according to the spokeswoman.

So the museum said it installed an automatic floodwall to prevent water from entering a loading dock along 14th Street which is below the 100-year flood level. A museum spokesperson also said all of its artifacts will be “protected for a 100-year flood event by virtue of the ground floor being above that level.”

Back at the National Archives, Edwards said the Archives has moved all of its documents, including the Declaration of Independence, more than 20 feet above Constitution Avenue.

They no longer store “anything that matters” in the basement or sub-basement levels, Edwards said.

Because -- as their own building warns -- you have to learn from your past to protect yourself in the future.

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