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New Albany Park Tunnel Project Will Prevent Flooding, City Says

By Quinn Ford | April 21, 2013 3:22pm | Updated on April 22, 2013 11:59am

ALBANY PARK — City officials offered some consolation Sunday to water-logged Albany Park residents: a plan to prevent the kind of "devastation" that has struck the neighborhood twice in the last five years.

On Sunday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and city officials highlighted a $50 million Albany Park tunnel project that they said will prevent more flooding.

Emanuel, who visited the area as a U.S. congressman after severe storms hit in 2008, said Sunday new investments are needed since "the abnormal is becoming the new normal."

"What was supposed to be a once-in-a-century occurrence has now happened twice in five years, which means we need to make the investments that are necessary here in the Albany Park area," Emanuel said.

The announcement comes as Albany Park residents continue to clean up after torrential rains Wednesday and Thursday caused the Chicago River to flood.

Organizations like the American Red Cross have stepped in to help provide free cleaning supplies, and officials said Sunday they are asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to offer assistance as well.

Emanuel said Sunday the city and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District have committed $40 million to build a "deep tunnel." The project is expected to cost as much as $55 million.

Shylo Bisnett, founder of Albany Park Neighbors, responded to the news.

"While we in the Albany Park community welcome any infrastructure investment which will alleviate constant flooding concerns, we understand that living near the river is a risk," she said.

"Because of this, and in advance of this new project's completion, we ask that the city take proactive measures, such as sandbagging, when the National Weather Service predicts flooding for the North Branch of the Chicago River," she continued. "The National Weather Service had clearly indicated that our area would likely flood, and the city took no action until floodwaters had already crossed Foster Avenue."

Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th) said sandbagging efforts began on Wednesday, though many Albany Park residents told DNAinfo.com Chicago sandbags didn't arrive until Thursday afternoon.

The tunnel will be about 100 feet below ground and will run the length of Foster Avenue, according to Department of Water Management Commissioner Thomas Powers.

Heavy rainwater would be diverted from the river to the tunnel, which would empty into the North Shore channel of the river, which officials said can handle the extra water.

Powers said, following the flooding in 2008, the city took steps like expanding wetlands in the area to try and prevent future flooding, but he said Chicago is "seeing different rain events than the sewer system was designed for."

"There's not a sewer system in the world that can handle that kind of water when it's coming in like that," Powers said.

Laurino said plans to build the tunnel have been in the works for about a year and a half. She said the tunnel proved to be the best plan among the options officials were considering, but it has taken time to find the investment dollars to make the tunnel a reality.

"This turned out to be the best plan, and clearly with the mayor being behind it now, I know that it's going to move very quickly," Laurino said.

The design phase of the project is optimistically expected to be completed by early 2014, said Dan Burke, the chief engineer for the Chicago Department of Transportation. After the design phase, Burke said construction should take about 18 to 24 months. That would put the earliest completion date for the tunnel in mid-2015.

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) was also at the news conference at Eugene Field Park Sunday.

Quigley stressed the need for an "immediate response" from FEMA as well as continued state and federal funding for regional reservoirs that could help alleviate flood damage in the future.

Quigley also said lawmakers need to recognize "climate change is real, and we all need to start addressing that."

"I keep hearing about hundred-year storms every other year," Quigley said. "It's a different world."

And although lawmakers expect the tunnel to spare residents from flooding in the future, Laurino was cautious about calling it a total cure.

"Mother Nature has a way of humbling us from time to time," Laurino said.

Patty Wetli contributed reporting