IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Flood Mitigation Project: When Government Truly Works

“Our project will install larger culverts, raise the road up above the flood elevation, so vehicles can pass and enter and exit the subdivision without having to go through hazardous waters.”

A flooded road.
A water level gauge marks a section of road inundated by floodwaters from the Sacramento River in March 2019.
(Ken James/California Department of Water Resources)
(TNS) - As construction trucks rumbled by and local politicians streamed into the Knollwood subdivision in unincorporated Fox Lake on Tuesday, Donna Ortegel, Kristi Kaminski and Karen Schild looked on with excitement.

The presence of some of Lake County’s movers and shakers signified, at long last, a possible solution to long-standing flooding problems plaguing the subdivision, which lies just off Route 59 near Duck Lake. For years, whenever there is heavy rainfall, life comes to a stop in Knollwood.

“You’re getting groceries in by boat, you can’t get an ambulance to you or a police car,” Kaminski explains. “You’ve got to get your kids out on your shoulders to get to a (school) bus.”

The first phase of the Knollwood project, estimated to cost $2.74 million, is part of a slate of 14 initial projects the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission is funding with $30 million from a total of $122 million it received from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. The village of Fox Lake is chipping in with $184,775 in matching funds.

“Our project will install larger culverts, raise the road up above the flood elevation, so vehicles can pass and enter and exit the subdivision without having to go through hazardous waters,” said Kurt Woolford, the executive director for Stormwater Management Commission. “Other features of the project will include enhanced drainage to get the water back to (Duck Lake).”

Ortegel can clearly recall the first year she lived in Knollwood, in 1986, when she says the worst flood to hit the subdivision struck.

“This became a regular thing though,” Ortegel says. “In ‘86, it was a once-in-a-hundred-year (flood).”

In the years since, and after particularly bad floods in 2013 and 2017, Ortegel and her neighbors have grown accustomed to getting in and out of the subdivision’s lone entrance and exit by boat.

Ortegel, Kaminski and Schild have become adept flood photographers as they have sought out governmental assistance.

The same goes for Jim and Sue Lindgren, who brought a supply of photos to show the politicians, local media and their neighbors.

As Jim Lindgren flipped through his photo set, one showing a red brick house set to be demolished, one of the residents lamented the “nice, young couple” who they figure recently left the neighborhood as a result of the frequent flood damage.

Another photo showed Sue Lindgren standing in April 2013 floodwaters up past her knees.

“Here’s the wife going to work,” Jim Lindgren said. “You can see she’s not too happy. Bought her some chest-high waders.”

That comment drew plenty of knowing laughs before Sue Lindgren explained the makeshift system of going to work while waiting for floodwaters to recede. While not as fun or relaxing as days they can spend out on the Chain O’ Lakes, residents have gotten creative to make do without governmental solutions.

“We had to have our cars towed over there (across Route 59 ) because we can’t drive in here,” Sue Lindgren said. “So that way, we would walk through the water, go over there, change into our clothes and go to work. That’s what we had to do.”

Schild added that the subdivision’s well water sources were likely contaminated from the 2017 floodwaters, which required tests and sampling to ensure they were safe for human use again. Plants and other vegetation usually dies after being enveloped by floodwaters.

“It’s just one thing after another,” Schild said. “We don’t get mail.”

“Oh my God, when (the waters) start to recede, it (smells) like we live in a sewer,” Ortegel added.

Tuesday afternoon’s groundbreaking ceremony was held on the site of a demolished house that residents said was particularly vulnerable to flooding.

Kaminski was profusely grateful to Fox Lake Mayor Donny Schmit, who she said was the first public official to commit to fixing Knollwood’s problem.

“He really did go to bat for us,” she said. “We demanded a meeting with him, the whole subdivision showed up and he listened to our concerns. We printed him hundreds of pictures to look through, and he really got the ball rolling and took care of the situation.”

Schmit addressed the crowd of a couple dozen with a succinct, candid speech that highlighted what the remaining Knollwood residents have brought to his attention since he became mayor in 2013.

“The residents are really behind this,” Schmit said. “And this is when government truly works.”

As flooding persists and worsens in Lake County, projects to alleviate the impacts have drawn bipartisan support while other issues continue to divide leaders in opposing parties.

Lake County Board members Kevin Hunter, a Republican who represents Knollwood as part of District 5, and board Chair Sandy Hart, a Democrat, lauded the collaboration between government entities.

“You don’t get a chance to do a project that is not partisan (very often),” Hunter said. “When you get into the municipal projects, they are nonpartisan. They just are. So they start that way, and you just hope that it ends that way. That’s the way that it happened. ... You can always get more done if you don’t have, ‘I’ve got to be on this side.’”

Hunter, a retired firefighter, noted how first responders’ abilities to adequately address emergencies in Knollwood is seriously limited — sometimes, for weeks — after heavy rain.

“You get a rescue call back there, or God forbid a house on fire, you really need some specialized equipment to get back there,” Hunter said.

Hart noted that the project was an example of the government following through on its promise, even if it took a while for all the pieces to come together.

“I feel fortunate to get to be part of a project that is going to help people protect their homes and the things they value,” Hart said. “I hope they realize that people do care. It takes a long time to get all of the money together and all of the engineering together. But you can see with all the trucks that are here and all the people that are here, a lot of people worked for a long time to make this a priority to help the people who live here. They might just feel like they’re in a little corner of Lake County, but they matter.”

Other political leaders present Tuesday included 32nd District Republican state Sen. Craig Wilcox, 64th District Republican state Rep. Tom Weber and North Chicago Mayor Leon Rockingham Jr., a Democrat who has long been involved in Lake County stormwater projects.

Projects are also in the works to address flooding in Park City, Waukegan, Grayslake, Warren Township, Libertyville, Highland Park, Lake Forest and Antioch with other entities slated for future mitigation efforts.

“Lake County is called Lake County for a reason,” Woolford said. “We have a lot of lakes, and the reason we have a lot of lakes is because nothing drains that well.

“There’s more runoff, and that’s countywide,” he continued. “It doesn’t matter which area you’re at in the county, whether it’s the Lake Michigan watershed on the east side or all the way over here on the Fox River. Flooding happens in every watershed. It happens in every political jurisdiction.”

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.