Weathering recent storms through community and government collaboration - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Weathering recent storms through community and government collaboration

Flickr user clarkmaxwell (CC)

If you happened to be on summer vacation not vigorously checking Twitter, northeastern Illinois suffered severe storms and heavy downpours recently. It has rained a lot! So much so that Gov. Bruce Rauner declared a state disaster for Lake, McHenry, Kane and (later) Cook counties.

Many areas are fractions away from topping their rainfall records from the last major flooding events in 2008 and 2013. This time around, Lake Country received the most rainfall in the first major rain, receiving 8.85 inches followed by 5.11 inches in McHenry County and 1.76 in Cook County. And while the rain stopped for a while, more pelted the area, and the water levels of surrounding lakes and rivers remain high. Rainfall in Wisconsin takes time to flow downstream where it will cause flooding on the Des Plaines and Fox Rivers days after a heavy storm.

Today, hundreds of residents are wading through the aftermath (or evacuating their homes all together by boat), bracing for more rain. Upwards of 7,000+ buildings are estimated to have been damaged.

What did local communities on the frontlines of such intense, problematic flooding do in response? Were there any bright spots amidst these rainclouds? To find out, I connected with three communities in Lake, McHenry and Cook counties to hear their sides of the story.

Proactive planning by Village of Beach Park saved the day… 30 miles away

The Village of Beach Park was lucky…this time. The community wasn’t significantly impacted by last week’s flooding. However, being situated in Lake County, they know a thing or two about flooding caused by heavy storms. Remember: It’s called Lake County for a reason. Roughly 20% of the county is covered by surface water consisting of streams, lakes, wetlands and floodplains.

Flickr User Jerry Posluszny (CC)

“There has to be proactive planning done prior to a storm in order to mobilize during or immediately after a storm” says Village Administrator Jon Kindseth. By doing so, Beach Park was able to share its resources, namely staff and services, to help another community in a completely different municipality that was in great need of assistance. MPC supports this kind of government collaboration  to better serve constituents. 

So, how did they do it? Beach Park joined the 289 other members of the Illinois Public Works Mutual Aid Network—a resource-sharing, mutual-aid-giving network of public works departments which helps guide how and when assistance can be provided to a neighboring community, drawing on each member’s own strengths, weaknesses, equipment and assets.

As a result, Beach Park was able to jump right in to volunteer in Nunda Township in McHenry County where communities were inundated with rainfall and the swelling water levels of the Fox River. They had also recently invested in valuable equipment that became available to other communities in need, like Nunda Township, because of joining IPWMAN prior to a natural disaster event.

[Planning] spreads the burden of emergency response beyond arbitrary political boundaries, which rainfall and river overbank flooding certainly don’t follow.

This kind of planning helps to lower the risks by involving other communities not impacted by typically regional calamities. It also spreads the burden of emergency response beyond arbitrary political boundaries, which rainfall and river overbank flooding certainly don’t follow.

Administrator Kindseth acts today with an eye on tomorrow. “Although Beach Park may be on the giving end of this mutual agreement during this event, we can anticipate a time when we might also need help from our neighbors.”

Technology aids volunteer work in Algonquin

A bit farther downstream along the Fox River, the Village of Algonquin experienced record-breaking water levels as the Fox River reached 12.36 feet (about 5 feet above normal), causing major flooding to the area. Flood warnings are still in effect for the Fox River in Algonquin affecting Kane and McHenry Counties.

USGS Geological Survey

However, with the help of drones, Geographical Information Systems, YouTube and Facebook, the Village of Algonquin pinpointed the potential flooding locations likely to receive the most impacts of flooding where personal visits and additional emergency response resources are needed most.

In a quick timespan, 500 volunteers filled more than 25,000 sandbags since last week’s storm, according to Algonquin Village President John Schmitt. The use of innovative technology and social media helped spread the word about the flooding conditions informing local residents in real-time. This is just another example of community-wide efforts to gather resources to help others in need to survive with as little damage as possible.

Government cooperation makes a noticeable difference in Glenview

Heading east towards Lake Michigan, the Village of Glenview in Cook County is located toward the downstream end of the North Branch of the Chicago River watershed. More than 60 square miles of watershed are directly upstream of the community, which means that the flood water levels experienced in Glenview depend largely upon conditions outside of the Village. As you would guess, flooding has been a historic issue here.

Bonnie Glen is one such residential neighborhood that has lived with reoccurring flooding problems for years. But, the great news is that 350 homes were prevented from major flooding last week thanks to another instance of intergovernmental cooperation to address stormwater.

Coincidentally, just days before the heavy rains began to fall, a brand-new underground detention basin the size of a football field was installed on the Lyon Elementary School. This was a joint project between Glenview School District 34 and the Village, which owns and will maintain the basin. Village President Jim Patterson lauded the effort, stating that "Providing this area detention under Lyon School is the most economical and feasible way to address these longstanding issues.”

National Weather Service

"We recognize the problems these residents have been experiencing for several years with flooding, and we feel fortunate to be presented with this opportunity to partner with the Village in a way that benefits homeowners while also addressing a need at Lyon School,” School Board President Cathe Russe stated.  It’s this kind of infrastructure investment that alleviates local flooding problems while serving as a green space and educational amenity for the community.

Indeed, governments can coordinate to creatively solve historically challenging problems, like stormwater management!

Glenview has been committed to planning for and investing in a range of stormwater projects since 2010 when it set forth a robust stormwater planning effort, forming a Resident Stormwater Task Force charged with identifying local stormwater projects with cost estimates and revenue sources in response to the storms and flooding of September 2008.

Coincidentally, just days before the heavy rains began to fall, a brand-new underground detention basin the size of a football field was installed...which protected 350 homes from major flooding.

The result was a stormwater implementation and flood risk reduction plan outlining flood risk reduction goals using a mix of capital and operating/maintenance improvements, efforts to promote regional improvement projects, regulatory and funding mechanisms and cost-sharing programs designed to engage and involve private property owners.

The underground detention basin at Lyons Elementary is just one of many recent examples where the Village is cooperating with other governmental and local entities, from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to the Glenview Park District to a local church, in order to partner on stormwater management. 

As the rainclouds begin to roll back in, these bright spots of communities, residents and governments working together—many times crossing political or physical boundaries to do so—shine a light of hope that we can weather any storm.

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