Tech Suggests More River Flooding in Illinois, so Government Moves to Remove At-Risk Houses

As technology improves to map floodplains, the number of residents and businesses at risk is climbing fast.

by Patrick M. O'Connell, Chicago Tribune / April 20, 2018
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Big Bend Drive, once a serene, secluded cluster of homes hugging the banks of the Des Plaines River, was a hive of hauling, digging, shoveling and excavation on a recent spring day. A bulldozer churned down the middle of the block, flinging a splatter of mud. A crew loaded chunks of concrete into a dump truck parked near splintered pieces of house siding, a jagged reminder of a recent past.

On this fingertip of land, the river meandering around it, a transformation has kicked into high gear. The crews are not building, however, but demolishing.

The neighborhood in Des Plaines is the target of a systematic flood mitigation program that aims to tear down most of the homes in an area frequently ravaged by the rising waters of the Des Plaines River. The street is now pockmarked with vacant lots where houses once stood, like a grade-schooler losing her teeth.

“A lot of people are just tired of seeing their homes flooded,” said Rainer Siebald, who lives in one of the remaining houses with his elderly parents. “When the river rises, it doesn’t matter whether your house is here or not. ... We used to have block parties every summer with all of the neighbors. Probably this summer we’ll have a survivors party.”

The buyouts and teardowns in Des Plaines are perhaps the most striking example of the ongoing tussle with the forces of the river, just one of the tools in an arsenal used by city, state and federal agencies to combat the effects of annual flooding.

This annual struggle up and down the river is widening. More people find themselves in the path of rising waters as extreme flooding events and torrential rains become more common. And as technology improves to map floodplains, the number of residents and businesses at risk is climbing.

A newly released report from The Nature Conservancy and the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom indicates 41 million Americans live in areas at risk of flooding, three times more than official Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates.

“It doesn’t take a genius to determine that is actually quite problematic,” said Oliver Wing, one of the study’s authors. “… If we continue to put more stuff in the way, it’s going to continue to get worse.”

Des Plaines is doing the opposite in some areas. After flooding caused widespread damage to the Big Bend neighborhood in 2010 and 2013, the city targeted it and four nearby streets for the mitigation program.

The Army Corps of Engineers says 43 municipalities in the Des Plaines River watershed, including tributaries, contend with flood damage. More than 370 homes and businesses in Lake and Cook counties are under consideration for buyouts, levees, flood-proofing and elevation adjustments, the Corps said. That includes Des Plaines, Wheeling, Buffalo Grove, Riverwoods, Lincolnshire and Gurnee.

State and federal officials said the program is voluntary and is designed to reduce the dangers, risks and costs of Des Plaines River flooding. Clearing the area of houses will benefit people and nature, they said, preventing future damage and rescues. But it is a strategy that can lead to heartache and frustration among homeowners who for years have lived within steps of the water.

“We’re not trying to drive people out of their homes,” said David St. Pierre, executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, one of the agencies involved in the buyout programs. “We’re trying to offer them an escape from their homes.”

An Underestimated Risk

Battling the river, from the Wisconsin border to Joliet, is nothing new. The extent of the flooding near the Des Plaines River and elsewhere throughout the Midwest and the country, however, likely is more extensive than previously believed.

Using new technology, researchers and hydrologists with The Nature Conservancy and the University of Bristol conclude 13.3 percent of the U.S. population is currently exposed to a 1-in-100-year flood. The Great Lakes region was one of the areas that experienced a substantial increase in flood risk compared to previous study estimates.

“This is not only a much clearer picture of how many people are at risk but also a look into the future and a look at how population is going to continue to grow,” said Kris Johnson of The Nature Conservancy.

“It’s a little bit of a wake-up call for doing a better job of protecting our assets,” Johnson said. “We need to improve our flood defenses. But the surest way to shore up our flood defenses is not to put people or property where it is likely to flood the most.”

On Wednesday legislation was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that would provide $5.5 million for grants to cities to improve mapping technologies and provide better data to Congress and FEMA.

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley and Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth are among the bipartisan group of sponsors. The proposal, advocates say, will help local governments and residents better understand and estimate flood risks, coordinate with the federal government, and help protect homeowners.

“The truth of the matter is, we don’t have much data on the flood risk from the kind of weather that turns our city streets, businesses, and homes into a flooded mess, let alone the information we need on how we might better prepare for these catastrophes in the future,” Durbin said in a statement.

Urban flooding frequently occurs outside the regulatory floodplain, and FEMA mapping does not always accurately indicate risk in these areas, according to the lawmakers who proposed the legislation.

A 2015 study by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources prepared for the General Assembly showed 90 percent of the state’s urban flooding damage claims from 2007 to 2014 were outside the mapped floodplains. Flood damage in Illinois’ urban areas during that time period contributed to more than $2.3 billion in documented damage.

Flood insurance is federally mandated on mortgaged properties that are located in areas at high risk of flooding. Those who live in an area that floods but is not designated a floodplain are not required to have flood insurance and may not be protected by homeowners policies.

Combating flooding has become a more pressing matter as the climate changes. Intense storms that drop large amounts of rain in a short period of time have become more common across Illinois, said Jim Angel, the state climatologist.

“There’s been a lot of wet spring weather over the last few years,” Angel said. “There is a long-term pattern of wetter conditions for winter and spring in Chicago and Illinois overall. It would not surprise me if we saw more of that.”

More frequent and bigger storms are “very problematic” for stormwater systems, Angel said. “When you get 1 inch, it soaks into the ground or is able to run off. When you get up to inch number 4, 5, 6, then you’re in big trouble, and that’s when it starts running off into your basement.”

In the Des Plaines River basin that covers a large swath of suburban Chicago, some flood-prevention projects have been approved but await funding. The Army Corps of Engineers has three new levees and two reservoirs planned, including projects in Des Plaines, Schiller Park, Franklin Park and River Grove.

The Corps says the proposed projects, which will cost $315.5 million, would have average annual damage reduction benefits of $10.7 million and 6,800 acres of ecosystem restoration. The projects await funding from Congress.

“We’d really love to see these projects funded,” said Jeffrey Zuercher, assistant chief of programs and project management in the Corps’ Chicago District. “It’s a top priority for us.”

Zuercher said the Corps has looked at other options on Big Bend Drive for years but has been unable to come up with a plan that addresses the challenges of the uniquely situated peninsula.

Johnson, of The Nature Conservancy, emphasized the importance of protecting open space, pumping the brakes on development, and advocating for natural areas and wetlands. But that poses a choice for local, state and federal agencies, who say that sometimes flood-control projects make more sense and offer better protection.

And for some, living on the river is hard to resist.

Bucking the Trend

Mark Allen is adamant he is not going anywhere. He sued the city of Des Plaines in January to ensure the short-sale purchase of his home on Big Bend Drive. He was aware of the flooding risks but said the house was a great deal, and he could not resist the natural setting.

Now his house is alone at the end of the street, at the base of the U where the river turns. In the months Allen has lived there, many of the houses on Big Bend have been torn down, replaced with mounds of earth and layers of straw.

“It’s a little intimidating in that as you watch the homes go down you’re kinda wondering ultimately what’s the goal here,” Allen said. “Are they going to get mine and tear it down? Ultimately I think they probably intend to do that. That’s what the engineers stated. But we’re going to stay as long as we can, and we’re going to defend it as well as we can from their efforts to take it.”

The back porch of his house offers a scenic panorama, the muddy river flowing beyond a patch of lawn and sloping bank where Allen likes to fish. Great blue herons nest high atop the trees lining the opposite bank. Allen loves the seclusion of the street, the access to the river, the feeling of being in the middle of the woods even though the house is three minutes from busy Rand Road.

“I feel like I’m in the middle of Wisconsin,” he said. “It’s worth every penny and then some to me.”

Allen bucked the trend: As others moved out of Big Bend, he and his wife and 12-year-old daughter moved in, much to the consternation of officials trying to clear out the notoriously flood-prone area.

In collaboration with FEMA and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, the city has acquired 61 properties and a few more are under contract, IEMA said. Eighty-one properties are being targeted.

The proposed buyouts cost approximately $25 million. FEMA is providing 75 percent of the cost, with the reclamation district covering 24 percent and the city the remainder.

“What we’re trying to do is to hopefully have people consider a balance between saying, ‘This is a lovely view’ versus ‘What if the worst happens and this lovely view is becoming my worst nightmare?’” said Russell Rickart, a senior specialist with FEMA’s mitigation program.

The city of Des Plaines has more than 1,200 acres in a FEMA-designated floodplain, the most of any community within the lower Des Plaines River watershed.

“A lot of these people get trapped in a situation they didn’t realize when they bought the home,” said St. Pierre of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I’m on the waterfront.’ But that’s not a good thing, because the water’s going to rise.”

St. Pierre said there is a balance between protecting homeowners from floodwaters and using resources in other ways, including acquisitions, to reuse the land and clear the floodplain.

At the same time, for residents who decline reasonable buyouts, he said, only to see their homes flood again, “it kind of takes away that sympathy.”

Making Acquisitions a Priority

Another acquisition program is underway along the Des Plaines River in an unincorporated area near Riverside, where Cook County has acquired 20 of 39 homes, according to the reclamation district. Since the early 1990s, about 4,400 homes have been acquired throughout Illinois in an effort to clear flood areas.

“The state of Illinois has made a high priority of getting people out of flooding areas,” said Patti Thompson, Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman. “Most of these people don’t have just one flood, they have had multiple floods.”

FEMA and IEMA run a cost-benefit analysis on flood areas to determine which areas are the best candidates for buyouts. Spending money to buy homes, officials said, is more affordable over the long term than paying for flood damage claims and emergency response.

“This is something that the people themselves, the homeowners themselves, decide,” Thompson said. “We’re not forcing any buyouts.”

But Big Bend residents said the city, which receives the money from IEMA to administer the buyouts, forces their hand with lowball offers and the threat of invoking eminent domain. Residents contend the offers are based on faulty appraisals, or at 2013 prices that do not include recent upgrades and remodeling or the true value of their homes. Des Plaines officials did not respond to requests for comment.

“I thought it was very unfair,” said Jo Benjamin, who reluctantly accepted a buyout offer for the house on Big Bend Drive she owned for 48 years. She moved into a condominium last summer. The home where she raised three children has since been demolished.

“It makes me sick just to think about it,” she said. “I miss it so much.”

Benjamin said she doesn’t buy the city and government’s argument that the neighborhood needs to be cleared because of the safety and environmental risks.

“You can’t type what I was going to say,” she said. “They are definitely full of it. It’s just nonsense.”

Stilts and Levees

Returning riverside neighborhoods to undeveloped land is only one of the flood prevention options at play. Throughout Cook and Lake counties, levees, reservoirs and sewer projects have been built and launched to tame the river, or at least minimize the damage to homes and businesses when floodwaters inevitably spill over its banks. With spring rains underway, these projects will be tested anew.

Oakton Community College’s Des Plaines campus sits along the river and often floods when the water level rises. The college’s new science and health careers center, which opened in 2015, was built on stilts to keep floodwaters at bay.

The school is relocating its computer databases from the basement to the second floor because of flooding concerns and is considering options to protect its athletic fields, which sit along the banks of the river, spokesman Paul Palian said.

Upstream in Mount Prospect, residents are cautiously optimistic that Levee 37 along River Road and the river’s west bank, the final pieces of which were completed last year, will provide a buffer from rising water.

“Last year was the first trial, and it seems to have gone fine,” said Guillermo Garcia, 40, who lives on Tano Lane, across River Road from the river.

Garcia said he’s had water in his house three times since he moved into it in 2005. “It was basically every other year,” he said. To help alleviate the issues, he remodeled his garage and driveway, taking out the slope and flattening the grade to prevent water from spilling downward into the garage and his family room beyond that.

Garcia was required to purchase flood insurance when he bought the house, and he has submitted two claims for damage.

Mount Prospect public works Director Sean Dorsey said the levee has protected the homes in the subdivision across River Road, but the village continues to work on its stormwater collection and drainage system. The presence of the levee means the village has to use a series of pumps attached to the levee to drain water out and over the barrier.

“Dealing with high water levels is becoming a more common thing,” Dorsey said. Flash flooding and storms that drop large quantities of water in a short period of time are a challenge for the system.

Still, the levee has been a welcome addition.

“Now it’s like a different way of life,” said Dorsey, who remembers when public works crews routinely used thousands of sandbags to try to stop flooding across River Road in past years, closing the street for weeks. “It’s been fantastic.”

Sandbags at the Ready

Sandbags haven’t disappeared completely from the area. Despite the levee, Maria Ivek has a stack of orange sacks at the ready by the garage of her Park Drive home, where she has lived since the early 1970s. She said she has her flood prevention measures down to a science.

The river was one of the biggest appeals of the home, Ivek said, and the natural beauty and close access to recreation was well worth the flooding trade-off. She just didn’t realize how many floods she would endure.

“They said it’s in a 100-year-floodplain, and I took that literally,” Ivek said. “I thought, ‘I won’t be here 100 years, so I’ll be OK.’”

Ivek isn’t thrilled about the look of the concrete levee and pump stations but said she has seen marked improvements in her neighborhood since their installation. But they haven’t solved everything.

“The issue is the wall has prevented rainwater and water from the subdivision (from exiting), so the subdivision becomes waterlogged,” Ivek said. Still, “As far as the wall, I think everyone feels better.”

Some residents downstream from Levee 37 have voiced concerns that Mount Prospect’s project may have adverse consequences for them.

But Ivek said no matter where one is situated on the river, residents are always going to worry about what’s happening upstream. “What are we to say about Gurnee?”

The Army Corps has approval but is awaiting funding for two reservoirs and three levees: the Harry Semrow Driving Range Reservoir and the Touhy-Miner Levee in Des Plaines; the Belmont-Irving Park Levee in Schiller Park and Franklin Park; and the Fullerton Grand levee and Fullerton Woods reservoir in River Grove.

The goal of the projects is to comprehensively address the river basin’s flooding, officials said.

Back on Big Bend in Des Plaines, Iryna Sikora has been weighing her options. She and her late husband bought their home on Big Bend in 2013 for $110,000, in the wake of flooding. She said the city’s offer of that purchase price does not consider the home’s current value, which includes an array of interior improvements, that is at least double that price.

Sikora, a widow with two children, doesn’t know whether she can afford to stay or should risk it. “When I saw this place for the first time, I feel in my heart, it was the place of my dreams,” she said. “I don’t want to leave it.”

©2018 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.