Disaster Zone

A Behind-the-Scenes Story to the Chicago Flood

Oops, I guess we are supposed to be responding.

by Eric Holdeman / April 18, 2017

Here is a story about the impact of an "under-the-street" flood that significantly impacted the city of Chicago. See A Watershed Moment: 25th Anniversary of the Great Chicago Flood.

Way back in the day I was serving in the Army as the chief contingency plans officer for the 4th Army, which was headquartered at Fort Sheridan, Ill., north of Chicago. We worked closely with FEMA Region V.  

I recall I had a conversation with a friend (who no longer works for FEMA) who told me about this flood event. Back then Region V was on Jackson Street in the heart of downtown Chicago. When the flood in utility tunnels happened, it shut down power and communications pretty much throughout the downtown area. The staff at FEMA Region V did what other businesses impacted by the event did, they closed up shop and went home.

This is when the "light bulb" went on, "Hey we are supposed to be responding to this event!" And, then they cranked up to do so.  

There are some good lessons from this event. For FEMA Region V, it was a reminder — first of their mission, and then the need for an alternate location to operate from, since they themselves were impacted by the event. 

For the people and organizations that responded to the initial report of problems in the tunnel, before the catastrophic failure, it is a reminder that time might not be on your side and "normal" processes might not proceed fast enough to meet an emergency situation. It is a hard lesson to learn — one that many times is ignored until it bites you personally!