WASHINGTON – Colleen Costello said her dog, Maple, was always excited to go to doggy day care. When her family would park in front of District Dogs in Northeast Washington, the 1½-year-old Shepherd mix would practically drag them inside, eager to make new friends in the playroom. Maple’s excitement was no different Sunday when Costello’s husband dropped off the dog for boarding at the facility while the family went on vacation.
“It’s kind of hard not to be around basically a family member, but we also knew she really liked being with her other dog friends,” said Costello, who is also an advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents Northeast neighborhoods including Michigan Park, Brookland and University Heights. “This was her chance to have her own little vacation away from us.”
But the next day, Costello started seeing posts on social media about heavy rain causing flooding at the day care in 600 block of Rhode Island Avenue NE. She asked a friend who lived in the apartments above District Dogs to find Maple and sent him a photo of her dog to show to the staff.
A staff member went to a room holding the surviving dogs. She came back and told Costello’s friend that Maple wasn’t there. Three hours later, Jacob Hensley, the owner of District Dogs, called Costello to tell her that Maple had died.
“She hadn’t even been there for 36 hours – if that,” Costello said. “And she died. Why?”
Maple was among 10 dogs killed in the flood at District Dogs, an incident that has sparked outrage directed at city officials and the day care’s owner over whether more should have been done to protect the animals there before Monday’s catastrophe. A year ago this month, the business similarly found itself underwater during a storm, and city officials have acknowledged it sits in a flood-prone area.
“Why was the business allowed to stay there?” said Jocelyn Lobos-Segura, whose dog, Mona, died in the flood. “Why wasn’t their certificate of occupancy revoked?”
Lobos-Segura said she remembered Mona’s paws springing onto the facility’s reception desk Monday morning, the dog excited to check in. Later that evening, the woman stood in front of District Dogs, watching as firefighters and others took remaining dogs out of the facility. That is when Hensley approached her and said the only dogs left inside were dead.
Hensley told NBC4 that he had spoken with city officials and was “assured that it was a safe place to open for business.” At a news conference Wednesday, city officials insisted they thought it was – even after last year’s flood – saying that Monday’s storm surpassed that of a year ago. Hensley told NBC4 he would not reopen the Rhode Island Avenue location.
Officials with the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority have previously said the area has experienced flooding as far back as the late 1800s, though at a news conference Wednesday, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Monday’s flood was unexpectedly large because of significant rainfall. D.C. Water’s gauges recorded about two inches of rain between 4:30 and 5:15 p.m. Monday, authorities have said.
“I was on the scene last year for flooding there, which is nothing like what we saw yesterday,” she said.
Brian Hanlon, acting director of the D.C. Department of Buildings, said the building at 680 Rhode Island Avenue NE was designed and permitted in accordance with code – and it was reinspected and deemed safe even after last year’s flood. He said after that reinspection, officials recommended the owner consider purchasing barricades for the front of the building, and they were there on Monday.
“Those were 30 inches high and were sufficient for the volume of water that occurred in last year’s storm,” he said. “Certainly not for what just happened, as the mayor just said.”
D.C. Council member Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5) said in tweets Tuesday that he had written letters to the city’s fire department and Office of Unified Communications asking about residents’ concerns that emergency responders were delayed in responding to the day care. Authorities did not provide a timeline Wednesday about how they responded to calls of flooding at the day care. Costello said she also questioned whether the business or its landlord had prepared for such an emergency.
“What was the evacuation plan for the animals and for the staff?” Costello asked. “There are commercial solutions to flood risks,” she added.
In a statement Wednesday, the business said that within minutes of seeing high water in the area, “staff began to take appropriate actions to move dogs in our care to the highest location in our facility,” but the water soon rose to six feet outside.
“Staff were following emergency procedures as the glass gave way and the building flooded,” the statement said, “Our staff rushed to continue to rescue dogs to the best of their ability despite the water rising above their heads. On Monday, District Dogs ownership spoke with each of the owners who lost dogs or their on-site representatives. Today, we are once again reaching out to the owners to share the additional information that we have gathered since Monday and to reaffirm our commitment to communicate during this difficult time.”
Kerry and Jonathan Garro said they were traveling on the West Coast when Hensley told them their dog Malee died in the flood. The next day, the couple said they sent him multiple emails asking where Malee was when she died, and how it happened. Kerry Garro said they asked the company to send a copy of their plan for when flooding occurs.
“If I knew, sitting at a computer in Alaska, that there was rain in the forecast that day, it seems unreasonable that there had not been a greater precaution taken,” she said. “I don’t blame the employees. I blame whatever protocol they had in place.”
The couple said they appreciated Hensley’s grief over the situation, but felt the owner bore some responsibility for what happened. Jonathan Garro said he spoke to the Humane Rescue Alliance, which is holding the animals’ remains, about Malee’s condition. The alliance told him his dog had a bloody death and experienced trauma trying to survive, he said.
“Our dog can swim. And you know, I think you know she may have succumbed anyway, even if the water was raging,” Kerry Garro said. “But I think what is really painful right now is to think that those dogs were locked up and left to die.”
Connor McCarty and Luer Yin were vacationing in Hawaii when they got a text from Hensley, asking to talk. They wondered if Zeni, their 2-year-old corgi, was having trouble with her food or another dog, and they were unaware it had rained in Washington. When Hensley answered the phone and told them their dog had died, they said they were stunned. An hour before the flood, Yin was watching Zeni play at the day care via webcam. She was her normal, happy self, trotting around with other dogs.
“He said they tried to save many dogs, but that Zeni could not be saved,” Yin said. “We have no idea what her last moments were like. We have no idea why some dogs were saved and others were not.”
“We never would have put her there if we knew they flooded last year,” Yin said through muffled sobs. “I regret it so much.”