Albany Park Residents Hold Officials' Feet to Fire for Recent Flooding

By Patty Wetli on May 14, 2013 12:42pm 

ALBANY PARK — With the recent flooding of the Chicago River still fresh in their minds, Albany Park residents confronted officials about the city's response to what's now been officially declared a disaster.

Bob Troy, of Chicago's Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC), faced down members of a still-angry community at Monday night's meeting of Albany Park Neighbors.

Residents' main point of contention: The deployment of sandbags well after the river breached its banks.

"When it snows, there's no expense spared in having guys sitting in trucks," said Tamara Biggs. "If you do it with snow plows, do it with the sandbags."

Responded Troy: "This was not for a lack of caring that this happened. I know this doesn't help you recover the things in your basement."

According to Troy, OEMC relied on forecast models from the National Weather Service, which predicted 4 inches of rain over two days.

"That was the best information we had at that time on [April 17]," he said. "Instead we got 5½ inches in hours that night. By 4 a.m., my boss was on the river and resources were called. Obviously they were not there in time."

Trucks carrying sandbags and Jersey barriers (modular concrete barriers more commonly used during road construction) got caught in the traffic snarl caused by the flooding, which included road closures along Foster Avenue, according to Tom LaPorte, assistant commissioner of the Water Department.

Lesson learned, said LaPorte.

Jersey barriers are now being staged at nearby North Park Village for easier access during future crises.

"I think we're going to pull the trigger earlier [on sandbags]," he added. "I've never seen flooding that bad in streets."

David St. Pierre, executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD), described the perfect storm of conditions that leaves Albany Park vulnerable to flooding.

The neighborhood is situated at the extreme southern point of the Chicago River's 100-square-mile North Branch watershed, which stretches all the way up to Wisconsin.

"You have a lot of water from a very large watershed going into a narrow channel," St. Pierre explained.

During the type of deluge that occurred in April, water pours in from the north causing the river to overflow, which, in turn, streams into the city's street sewers, compounding the problem. Contrary to popular belief, opening the locks to the Chicago River "doesn't do anything magical for Albany Park," he said.

Actual solutions include the proposed construction of a tunnel under Foster Avenue, which is currently in the design phase, according to St. Pierre. MWRD is also in the midst of bringing a trio of reservoirs online by 2029, with ultimate capacity of 15 billion gallons of water.

Meanwhile, the city is working to replace its ancient water main system — a quarter of the pipes are 100 years old — with larger and sturdier pipes.

"We've been pouring concrete for a century. If the water can't sink in, it's going to the sewer," said LaPorte. "We have an old sewer system that was not designed for the weather we're having."

Given the projects' lengthy timelines, none of these plans offered comfort to residents who grow anxious with every heavy rain.

LaPorte proposed a public-private partnership that would enable homeowners to take action on their own property to help reduce flooding, describing a program he's implemented in other flood-prone neighborhoods.

"I consider this the challenge of our generation," he said. "What I'm trying to do is redefine city services."

At the invitation of at least two or three homeowners on a block, he'll bring in a crew to inspect the sewers and catch basins. An engineer will follow, determining areas where improvements can be made: Frequently, disconnecting downspouts from a home's private drain markedly reduces basement flooding.

"Then I bring in a rain garden expert," said LaPorte. "Our goal is to keep as much water out of the sewer as possible."

Resident Tamara Biggs can attest to the success of such seemingly small steps.

In 2008, her home flooded after heavy rains. She replaced her sewer line, which had collapsed, and tore up her concrete driveway.

During the most recent storm, "I didn't flood," she said.

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