Deborah Wiggins, who lives near the northeast D.C. border, saw her yard fill with three feet of water during the rainstorm on Sept. 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Wiggins)
Deborah Wiggins, who lives near the northeast D.C. border, saw her yard fill with three feet of water during the rainstorm on Sept. 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Wiggins)

Six months after Deborah Wiggins bought her home near D.C.’s northeast border, she found herself watching as three feet of water rose in her yard, seeping into her home. During the deluge of rain that hit the region on Sept. 10, 2020, flash floods across the Northeast stranded cars and damaged homes.

“I watched the water swirl into my yard,” Wiggins recalled. “The water came up the steps onto my porch. It came into the house, and filled my house quickly.”

Not sure what else to do, Wiggins at first tried putting a towel down on the floor. Her 8-year-old granddaughter was visiting that afternoon, as was Wiggins’ best friend. Neither could return home for hours; no one could get through the flooded roads.

“The towel was floating around, and the floor was coming up, and it was crazy,” she said. “My granddaughter was crying; she was upset. We put her on the sofa. She was fine, but it was just water everywhere.”

Wiggins was not the only hard-hit D.C. homeowner during the September 2020 flood event. Further, the sudden, heavy rainfall that caused it will only become a more common occurrence over the coming years and decades as the climate continues to warm. A year after that flood, the D.C. Office of the City Administrator established an inter-agency Flood Task Force, which produced a report with more than 25 action plans to better prepare for and address flood events. 

One of those action plans detailed a program that piqued Wiggins’ attention. The FloodSmart Homes pilot program, created by the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, aims to help District residents—especially those living in flood zones—protect their houses before flooding even hits. 

It works like this: anyone in a single- or two-family home with documented flood risk can sign up to receive a free “home resilience assessment.” A professional will conduct a site visit, looking at the inside and outside of the home and assessing the soil. After that, homeowners will receive a personalized report with the assessor’s recommendations for cost-effective “resilience upgrades.”

“Sign up is free—we will have professionals come to your home for free,” said Nicholas Bonard, DOEE’s branch chief of floodplains, wetlands and groundwater.  “And we won’t do anything without getting your approval.”

The first of the assessments will likely begin this spring, Bonard said. 

Once an assessor presents their recommendations—and potential costs—the homeowner can choose which, if any, resilience upgrades they would like. Professional contractors will install the chosen upgrades at no or low costs to the homeowner through the FloodSmart Homes pilot.

The potential improvements include a range of measures, such as anchoring water heaters and HVAC equipment firmly to the floor; elevating outdoor mechanical or electrical equipment; or installing weather radios and water intrusion alarms. 

Another option on the list: raising electrical outlets higher on the wall or replacing them with safer outlets called “ground fault circuit interrupters,” which automatically shut off if the electricity reaches a person. In a flood situation, that can make a major difference. 

“I had water up to right below the light sockets,” Wiggins said. “Not knowing that if the water had hit the light sockets, there was a possibility of getting electrocuted. And we were standing in the water—so we thank God that that didn’t happen.”

So far, a little over 100 District residents have signed up for the FloodSmart Homes list. The program will prioritize homes in the 100-year floodplain, then those in the 500-year floodplain and then those located outside a floodplain that have experienced flooding. D.C. residents can see if their homes fall in a flood zone at

A 100-year floodplain is an area that has an estimated 1 in 100, or a 1%, chance of flooding in any given year. Similarly, a 500-year floodplain has about a 0.2% chance of flooding annually. Over 1,000 residences in the District fall within the 100- and 500-year floodplains designated by FEMA, according to DC Water. And 98% of the District’s single-family homes in the 100-year floodplain are in Wards 7 and 8. 

Not all homes facing flood risks in the District lie in a designated floodplain, however. The Federal Emergency Management Agency draws floodplain maps, but those maps largely fail to take into account the increased rainfall brought on by climate change. DOEE climate modeling showed that a one-in-100-year rainstorm could become a one-in-15-year rainstorm by 2080.

Flooding from rivers or other waterways tends to get mapped more accurately than “interior flooding,” which occurs in parts of the city where drainage infrastructure cannot handle intense rain. Those areas might not sit anywhere near a creek or stream. Often, people living outside designated floodplains don’t think to purchase flood insurance, and basement floods can wreak financial havoc. 

Most of the time, only very major flooding causes federal agencies like FEMA to step in with funds to help homeowners install improvements to mitigate the impacts of future flooding. The FloodSmart Homes program was designed, in part, to fill some of that gap.

“We keep getting this nuisance flooding that can devastate a family, even if it’s not a declared disaster by FEMA,” Bonard said. “We needed to take it upon ourselves and be proactive in this way.”

Wiggins, who lives in the 500-year floodplain around Watts Branch Creek, had flood insurance, which paid for new floors and mold remediation. But she had to leave her home to stay with her daughter for seven months during the process. She also lost clothes, shoes, furniture and papers.

“Every time it rains, I’m looking out the window, and it gives me anxiety,” Wiggins said. 

The same day Wiggins received a link to the FloodSmart Homes site, she said, she sent in an application.

This story has been updated to clarify that Deborah Wiggins’ home is all on one floor.

Kayla Benjamin

Covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine writing stories...

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. Thank You Kayla! Excellent article, there is one small error my house doesn’t have a basement, it is all on one level. Let me know if I can be of further assistance to you in getting word out that will help other home owners like myself get the facts and possibly get help. I appreciate your efforts!!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *