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Stories of the storm: Some towns came prepared

Flooding conditions along Fox River south end Fox Lake as seen from air. | Aerial photography by Lee Hogan

Flooding conditions along the Fox River on the south end of Fox Lake as seen from the air. | Aerial photography by Lee Hogan

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Updated: May 29, 2013 7:37AM

Bellwood and Homewood aren’t river towns.

But after the April 18 downpour, nearly 3,000 homes in west suburban Bellwood got flooded.

In south suburban Homewood, officials estimated fewer than 100 homes were damaged by the flood.

The difference: location, location, location.

Many Bellwood residents live in a flood plain. In Homewood, just a few share that distinction.

In the record flood of 2013, where you happened to live in relation to the storm’s path was key, of course, in terms of flood damage. Also critical at times were the precautions towns had in place — because there wasn’t a big, regional save, even the Deep Tunnel wasn’t big enough to store the surges of water from the historic storm.

While some Homewood residents had flooding and basement backups, the south suburb has something many villages and suburbs don’t have.

“Basically we took a whole racing track back in the late 70s, when the racetrack burned down to the ground, we converted it into a light industrial and nature area, and with that, basically made some lakes, channels and trails, and we use that area to store stormwater,” Homewood Public Works Director John Schaefer said.

When the town experiences heavy rains, stormwater, through a series of pipes, goes into that area, which stores the water.

“Gradually, the lake levels go down,” Schaefer said. “Once the storm stops through the sewer system, that eventually gets out into the creeks.”

Besides the racetrack-turned-nature-park, the village also added additional drainage and detention areas. It’s green space that holds water, helping areas known to flood.

After every flood, Schaefer says, the town learns what not to do, and that it takes energy, planning and money to help reduce the amount of stormwater.

“As your town ages, everything needs to be maintained, and things do wear out,” Schaefer said. “You try to rebuild and as everybody knows, money just isn’t out there. It’s tough and tougher.”

Abby Crisostomo, a research associate at the Metropolitan Planning Council, says it’s worth the money for municipalities to help create incentives for property owners to install their own natural stormwater practices, like downspout disconnection, rain gardens, bioswales, cisterns and green roofs.

Other options included repair and replacements geared toward sewer system capacity flooding.

“They should have a good idea of their sewer systems and proactively repair areas that are undersized or deteriorating,” Crisostomo said.

On Lisbon Street in far southwest Morris, the flood damage varied depending on what side of the road you live on. You either got a basement full of creek water or sewage water coming through your drains.

A week after the flood, Bessie Strickland was still overwhelmed. She didn’t get flooding from a swollen creek. Instead, she felt the rumbling under her house, and noticed black, muddy sewage seeping out of her sinks, toilets and tubs, she said.

“It came so fast. The water was going over the sandbags, just as quickly as we were putting them out there,” Strickland said. “It really came under ground. It cracked the streets in four, five different places from the pressure. It came through the foundation, and then we had sewer water coming up the drains.”

Strickland’s three kids — ages, 12, 13 and 16 — live in the basement. Before she knew how deep the water was, she asked her 13-year-old daughter to run down and get some essentials. “All I heard was a splash, into 4 feet of water,” Strickland said.

“They lost everything,” she said.

All that was left of her daughters’ shared bedroom, a partition in the basement, were their Disney and band posters, and books that were shelved above the 5 feet of water the basement filled up with.

“I didn’t even know a washer, dryer and refrigerator could float,” Strickland said.

City officials will tell you the water came too fast, overwhelming its system.

“We just couldn’t handle the amount of water we had this time,” Morris Public Works Director Jim Gretencord said. “It was a weird event because normally the river comes up first, then it backs up the creek. This time the creek flooded first.”

The creek swelled, pouring so much water into the backyards of homes nearby that a bird feeder was nearly underwater. The city’s separate sewer and storm systems became one, as residents panicked and pumped water out of their homes, into the sanitary lines.

But Gretencord says the city can’t do what some others have done, in terms of storing stormwater in green spaces.

“We don’t have that option because we’re so close to the river,” he said. “But we do have ordinances on large buildings to have their own stormwater retention.”

The water rushed in so fast and with so much volume that it collapsed a foot bridge on the historic aqueduct carrying the I&M Canal over Nettle Creek.

Gretencord was nearby checking on walking bridges along the canal which had collapsed: “It wasn’t so much loud, but it was an eerie crunch,” Gretencord said. “It’s a sound I’ll never forget.”

A week after the flood, Mayor Richard Kopczick visited the aqueduct.

“It’s basically been destroyed,” the mayor said. “That structure was built between 1934 and 1937, and it has withstood everything thing thrown at it, until Thursday.”

It’s a system that couldn’t handle the water, the mayor and public works director said.

The city of 13,700 is still reeling from the flood, with most residents thinking of ways to avoid misfortune.

Ken and Beverly Michalski have lived in their Morris home for 32 years and watched as their yard became full of water and engulfed their basement. Their plan: build a berm with two other neighbors.

“It’ll cost us about $30,000 but it is definitely worth it,” Beverly Michalski said. “Anything is worth preventing what happened.”

This isn’t a 100-year storm anymore. It’ll happen a lot more frequently, experts say.

Peter Doran, a professor at University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in climatology, says increased temperatures, an increase in moisture — 4 percent more over the last 30 years or so — and a jet stream that lifted warm moisture air into the atmosphere produced the April 18 storm.

“You’re going to see more stable storms like that, more systems frozen in place like that,” Doran said. “It really is just happenstance that Chicago got hit. It could have been west or east of it,”

It’s the jet stream that causes severe weather, he says, and we’re going to see some big extremes that can create the potential for severe weather.

“There’s more variability. There will be stronger and more stable storms, which will stay along for a long time because the planetary temperature has risen and it’s going to continue to rise,” Doran said. “There’s more energy in the system and we’re going to see more violent storms. The news is not good.”

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