The entire city was drenched with torrential rain earlier this week, but residents on the West Side were hit especially hard as more than 8 inches of rain fell in the Austin community and nearby suburbs. Now, as residents are emptying their basements of ruined property and looking at costly repairs, many are asking why so many homes in their neighborhoods flooded while much of the rest of the city escaped the same fate.
Ald. Emma Mitts (37th Ward) said her ward and its residents have been devastated by flooding — and that includes her own home.
“(The flooding) started just with my block, 3 feet of water in the basement and every home that I’ve been to, 3 to 4 feet of water, which destroyed everything,” Mitts said. “And in our community, we have people who live in the basement, who have business in their basement, day cares that they’re operating, and to lose everything is just heartbreaking.”
In West Garfield Park, West Side Rising’s Martin Coffer was also among the flooded. He reported having seen about 3 feet of water in his basement coming up from the floor drain.
“It came up to right above my knee in my basement,” Coffer said. “Having to replace our furnace, hot water tank, washer, dryer, clothes that we had down there in the basement because that was our area where we wash our clothes, iron, hang our clothes in that particular space. So it’s just been really difficult. It seems like it just came out of nowhere. So, yeah, it’s really difficult. We’re still dealing with it.”
Stephen Robinson, executive director of Northwest Austin Council, said it’s not the first time his community has seen widespread flooding.
“This isn’t anything that’s very unusual because we had a flood like this several years ago, which was probably one of the biggest back in 1997,” Robinson said. “FEMA literally came out and rescued everyone because we needed it. People are in dire straits right now. I know of one individual, she’s in hospice right now and she lives in a basement apartment and they had to literally find another location for her to live in. But the daughter that’s taking care of her doesn’t have transportation to go to the further out location, so they ended up trying to clean up what they had to keep, at least the bedroom sanitized and livable so that the mother can have her last day. … There’s so many people that have been devastated that you can see it just by the amount of garbage and trash that’s being put out.”
Andrea Cheng, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Water Management, said her department and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District work together to keep the area’s sewer systems working.
“This storm … was truly unprecedented,” Cheng said. “The equivalent is about 84 to 96 inches of snow just to kind of put that in context … but this region sewer system simply does not have the capacity to handle this kind of extraordinary volume of rain that came down mostly in about a 10-hour period. The water … flows from the sewer mains in the streets over to MWRD’s interceptor tunnels that are about 30 to 45 feet underground, then to larger tunnels from MWRD that are about 200 feet underground, then to their reservoirs, then to water treatment plants. So all of us work together to play a role in … managing storm water in Chicago.”
Cheng outlined her department’s responsibilities in that partnership.
“311 calls are coming in,” Cheng said. “Most of these were water in basements, but also some water in streets, flooded viaducts. We had about 8,000 of those come in; 1,900 alone were in the (37th) Ward, so very significant. And we put out all of our resources, all of our crews, to be able to go out and address each one of those 311 calls, look and see what’s going on. Clean the sewer mains in those areas, making sure that the reason that people are flooding are not because of some kind of clog in the sewer main, looking at the catch basins that are nearby … for things that might be clogging that … to help get the flow down into the sewer. And we also make sure people know about our private drain sewer drain program in case people are having problems with their private sewer drain, which is the part that connects the home to the sewer main.”
Cheng said in her department’s estimation, the West Side flooded so badly because it just received more rainfall than other areas.
“When we map our water in basements compared to the rainfall that happened on Sunday, it’s a very good correlation,” Cheng said. “So the, the simple answer for the West Side is it was the intense amount of storm water that fell in that area. The storm sort of stalled out and stayed in the area.”
Mitts said she is in the process of putting together information needed to get federal assistance for those affected.
“I am exhausted,” Mitts said. “I am frustrated, but I continue to fight until we can get some help. We need help. We have furniture that’s not working. We can’t wash our clothes and not only that, our hot water heaters are out, and it’s not easy to replace these things. We need help.”