The Threat of Urban Flooding in Chicago

Chicago residents living in low-lying parts of the city dread the rainfall that too often brings flooding.
May 18, 2019, 5am PDT | Camille Fink
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Jerry Posluszny

Michael Hawthorne and Morgan Greene report on flooding in Chicago that leaves residents with basements full of water, sewage, and, in some cases, sewer flies. The city’s aging sewer infrastructure cannot handle any sort of rainwater deluge, and the results of the urban flooding have been substantial, write Hawthorne and Greene:

Flood losses in the city and suburbs cost taxpayers $1.8 billion in subsidized grants, loans and insurance payments between 2004 and 2014, according to a report released last month by the National Academy of Sciences. Only hurricane-ravaged areas of coastal Louisiana, New York and Texas received more federal flood aid during the decade.

A number of Chicago neighborhoods are in low-lying areas that make them vulnerable to flooding. "To make matters worse, sewers in Chicago and older suburbs were designed to handle runoff as well as waste from homes and factories. When it rains, the combined sewers quickly fill up, forcing a noxious brew to flow back into basements and out of dozens of overflow pipes into local streams," say Hawthorne and Greene.

Community advocates say the city has been slow to respond, even as it has continued work on the Deep Tunnel, an underground tunnel system designed to handle the runoff that will not be completed until 2029. Some neighborhoods are being proactive and working with organizations like the Center for Neighborhood Technology on strategies to help better manage stormwater drainage.

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