Officials begin investigating how Ida flooding turned fatal, damaged apartments in Rockville

September 3, 2021

By: Steve Bohnel

Read the full article here.

After flooding killed a 19-year-old man, severely damaged apartments, and left more than 100 residents in the Rockville area displaced on Wednesday, officials have started investigating what might have caused water levels to rise so high, so quickly. 

An initial assessment of a culvert near Rock Creek Woods Apartments and some of its adjoining piping showed no significant obstacles or defects, according to Earl Stoddard, one of the county’s assistant chief administrative officers who formerly headed the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

Early Wednesday, water flowed so high near one building on the northern edge of Twinbrook Parkway complex that it shattered windows. It also killed 19-year-old Melkin Daniel Cedillo. 

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Another person, who was unaccounted for after the incident, has been located and is safe, police said Thursday.

Beyond the lack of blockage, Stoddard acknowledged there are several other factors to investigate.

Officials are trying to figure out the area watershed, including where and how much water flowed from nearby waterways, before traveling down into the apartments at Rock Creek Woods, Stoddard said. They’re also trying to see if the culvert was large enough to handle that much rainfall at once, he added.

Joseph A. Lynott III, a Rockville lawyer representing the Rock Creek Woods Apartments, on Friday addressed a Bethesda Beat report of previous drainage problems at the site.

“In the 60-year history of Rock Creek Woods Apartments, this incident is absolutely unprecedented, and there is no indication there was any malfunction of its drainage systems,” he wrote in a letter to the Beat. “As is apparent from video footage of the incident, the damage from this historic rainfall was caused by a continuous torrent of water which overflowed a publicly maintained culvert located on the adjacent property owned by the City of Rockville.”

In an interview, he said any previous drainage or flooding problems were unrelated to Wednesday’s fatal flood. He referenced WSSC Water pipes that had burst on the other side of the apartment complex and water in low-lying areas, “but never anything like this.”

Lynott said Rock Creek Woods cleans drain pipes on the property before every storm, including Ida.

Flooding also occurred at Congressional Towers Apartments in Rockville, near Woodmont Country Club on Wednesday. Basement units were completely washed out, and multiple walls were severely damaged.

State Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Rockville), whose district includes the apartment complex, surveyed the damage there Wednesday evening. She said in an interview she lived from 2012 to 2016 in the building that flooded.

Kagan was critical of building management, saying construction was constantly occurring and that managers may have taken advantage of the fact that many tenants didn’t speak English as a first language, or were short-term renters.

She hopes there is a thorough investigation into what occurred, especially given reports of previous flooding. Bethesda Beat had reported Wednesday on a tenant describing flooding at the complex roughly three years ago.

“I can’t think of another time where a residential building in our community, in our county has been so badly maintained,” Kagan said. “And if there was a problem three years ago, it’s shocking and irresponsible about why this wasn’t addressed.” 

Congressional Towers Apartments is owned by Polinger Co., a property management firm based in Chevy Chase. Mindy Harrison, senior vice president of residential property management for Polinger, on Thursday described how management is responding following the flooding:

“Our focus now is on keeping the building functioning, finding temporary housing for those residents who were displaced, and restoring the damaged areas of the building,” Harrison wrote in a statement. “Our staff have been working tirelessly to accomplish those objectives, and we now have air conditioning, cooking gas and hot water restored to the building by means of a temporary chiller and a temporary boiler.”

Harrison also responded to the report of previous flooding. 

“Yesterday’s flood was due to an unusually heavy rainfall in a short period of time that overwhelmed the storm water systems,” she wrote. “The issue three years ago involved a sanitary line blockage and specific maintenance since that time has prevented a further occurrence.”

Besides Kagan, other elected officials on Thursday called for a thorough investigation of what exactly caused the major flooding at Congressional Towers and Rock Creek Woods. County Council Member Sidney Katz, whose district includes both apartment complexes, was one of them.

Katz said in an interview that there should be an investigation, whether or not there had been previous complaints about potential flooding. 

Given the multiple number of days of heavy rainfall recently, answers need to come soon, he added.

“I believe that every question has to be answered,” Katz said. “We have to start with why did it happen, and how did it happen, and go from there … and hopefully, we can get some answers fairly quickly.”

In the case of Rock Creek Woods, Stoddard said that the county’s Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Protection will work with the city of Rockville and state officials to determine what exactly happened. 

Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said that city officials will assist in both investigations, noting that since Rock Creek Woods is outside city limits, county officials will take the lead there.

Right now, she’s concerned about the residents who were displaced first. Scott Peterson, a spokesman for County Executive Marc Elrich, said Thursday evening that 50 residents who spent Wednesday night at the county’s Mid-County Community Recreation Center had all found other housing. 

“I want to make sure people are taken care of, and then we can go through the due diligence of the investigation with the county,” Newton said. 

But she added officials are questioning building management about what occurred.

“We are working with property management at both properties, to ensure that everything they needed to do was done,” Newton said. 

Stoddard said county officials and building management both must do a thorough evaluation of whether they had done enough to prevent the major flooding that occurred Wednesday.

He doesn’t doubt what John Walters, someone who had family members at Rock Creek Woods, said about the storm drains there. But he also doesn’t know what might occur, legally or otherwise.

“I don’t doubt there will be potential litigation on this issue, but I just don’t know how the courts will rule or how culpability is going to be measured in such an incident,” Stoddard said. “We have no evidence to suggest there was an issue with the culvert or the stream bed, but I don’t know what the condition of the storm drains on the property were.”

Rock Creek Woods is not responsible for the culvert under the property, which is county-operated. But it is responsible for the drains and any adjoining infrastructure, Stoddard said.

Denis Grieve, the property manager for Rock Creek Woods apartments, did not respond to three voicemails seeking comment left between Wednesday and Thursday. 

The investigation between Rockville, the county and state could take multiple months to complete, Stoddard said.

He said that officials everywhere will learn from Wednesday’s flooding. He added that residents who feel their complaints about potential flooding or drainage issues are being unheard by property management should contact the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

The flooding Wednesday was some of the worst he and other first responders have seen in their careers, he said. But events like it are becoming more common due to climate change, he added.

Wednesday was a hard day for first responders at Rock Creek Woods, but even more difficult for those displaced, he said.

“This is obviously the worst day of life for many of the people in this building,” Stoddard said.

Bethesda Beat staff writer Dan Schere contributed to this story. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at