Reversing the flow of the Chicago River — keeping human waste, cattle entrails and toxic waste from flowing into our Lake Michigan drinking water — stands as our city’s greatest engineering feat.
But on a day like Thursday, when heavy rains flooded viaducts, basements and storefronts, there's a much simpler engineering marvel keeping my basement bone dry — the “rain blocker.”
It’s basically a plastic funnel jammed into street drains that’s designed to slow the flow of stormwater into sewers, allowing the street to flood rather than sending a fountain of human waste into basements.
Not everyone considers the rain blocker — engineering geeks call it a vortex — to be a genius invention.
Folks on the North Side in Portage Park, Peterson Park and my old neighborhood, Roscoe Village, will tell you that if a rain blocker gets clogged during big storms, rainwater flows over the gutters, floods front lawns and spills into homes through basement windows.
Some of my neighbors aren’t fond of Lake St. Lawrence — that’s what I call the giant puddle that accumulates and lingers for days outside my house when it rains. It’s not ideal. I’ve made the messy mistake of trying to leap across the pool of muddy runoff.
Breaking up the caked-up sludge with a shovel handle and scooping it up with your hands is a stinky, disgusting chore.
But I know rain blockers work. The guy who lived in my house before me installed drain standpipes, and built risers to keep boxes and appliances above the basement flood line. Nearly eight years since I moved in, I haven't suffered a single backup during torrential downpours.
So, when big rains hit, I'm thankful for that little piece of plastic jammed in the street drain that keeps my basement from becoming a poop-filled swimming pool.