A Sun-Times analysis shows the city received more than 27,000 reports to 311 about flood-related problems in the past two years.
Omar Vega moved into his East Side home three years ago, and he’s endured basement flooding each spring or summer since.
This past May, he said water came up through two drains and left around 6 inches of “very stinky” sewer backup standing in his basement, destroying carpet and some other items.
“It’s the same old story,” he said of the recurring problem at his home, a perennial misery faced by tens of thousands of Chicagoans.
Vega reported his home’s flooding to the city’s 311 system, one of nearly 4,800 complaints that month, the wettest May ever in the city with more than 9.5 inches of rain reported.
Trends point to even wetter weather in the future.
“May was officially the wettest on record in Chicago, beating 2019, which previously beat 2018,” said Illinois State Climatologist Trent Ford. “The fact we’ve broken records three years straight is quite an anomaly.”
Complaints rising rapidly
The barrage of calls and clicks to report basement or street flooding for the month of May was the most of any month over two years and more than 40% higher than May the year before, a Sun-Times analysis of 311 data through mid-June found.
Among the paper’s other findings:
• In total, more than 27,000 complaints were lodged for either water in basements or for street flooding.
• Nearly 60% of those complaints were for street flooding, while more than 40% were for basement flooding.
• More than a quarter came from six Far South Side ZIP codes, showing that some of the city’s lowest-income communities of color are inundated. The top two ZIP codes for flood-related complaints were 60620 and 60628, which cover parts of several neighborhoods including Auburn Gresham, Chatham, Pullman, Roseland and Washington Heights.
• Over the past two years, there were almost 1,300 flooding complaints from residents in Vega’s ZIP code 60617, the third-highest in the city.
• The Northwest Side is also experiencing heavy flooding. Broken down by ward, the 41st Ward, which includes Edison Park, Norwood Park and Sauganash, had the second-most number of 311 flood complaints, behind only the 21st Ward on the South Side.
Where is Chicago flooding?
Click here for map. This map shows flooding complaints to 311 in Chicago by ZIP code. ZIP codes on the far South Side reported the most cases of flooding over a two year period, either as water on the street or water in basements. ZIP codes in green had the fewest complaints, while ZIP codes in red had the most. Hover over the map to see how many complaints each ZIP code logged. Caroline Hurley/Sun-Times.
Sewers overwhelmed and outdated
Unlike many other flood-prone parts of the country where rising rivers and other bodies of water deluge homes, Chicago suffers from so-called urban flooding that is caused by an overwhelmed and outdated sewer system that combines both stormwater runoff and sewage.
Despite a massive flooding backup system, the decades-long public works project Tunnel and Reservoir Plan commonly known as Deep Tunnel, Chicago neighborhoods continue to get walloped by flooding as severe storms, caused by climate change, compound the problem.
“Urban flooding is a new territory, and no one single community has nailed it,” said Nora Beck, a senior planner at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. “And that’s because of those changing conditions. The target keeps moving.”
South Side hardest hit
Among the hardest-hit areas is Chatham, a community that the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology previously declared to be among the worst hit by flooding damage in the country. For more than a half-dozen years, the center has been working with the neighborhood to help solve its flooding problems.
The city of Chicago has improved sewer lines in the neighborhood. Yet the community still leads the city’s flooding-related 311 statistics over two years.
Under a pilot project between the city of Chicago and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and aided by the center, Chatham was supposed to be a model for flood-mitigation improvements in 2020, but the program was delayed by the pandemic. This year, dozens of homeowners were to receive aid for both plumbing fixes and green improvements such as landscaping that can absorb large amounts of water.
“We have to live with water,” said Rebecca Raines Cook, manager of outreach and public engagement at the center. “Rain patterns are worse than what we thought they’d be.”
The program will evaluate whether making fixes to clusters of private residential properties can reduce the impact of flooding.
Lori Burns took part in an earlier program that involved a dozen Chatham homes. The Center for Neighborhood Technology helped arrange for installation of a valve that stops sewer backups and a “rain garden” with a variety of native plants with long roots that can absorb water in the front yard of Burns’ home.
Having suffered devastating basement flooding from sewer backups for years, the plumbing and green improvements to her home have largely spared her from flooding since 2014, she said. That program is a model for the upcoming pilot.
Burns’ neighbors continue to experience serious flooding, and she encourages them to call 311, though she believes most don’t.
“That’s the mantra. Call 311 — it’s the first thing you do. Then wait till the water goes down,” she said.
North Side wet, too
Despite the problems on the South Side, that’s not to say that the North Side is staying dry.
Broken down by aldermanic wards, the 41st on the Far Northwest Side is second only to the 21st on the Southwest Side in terms of numbers of complaints.
Ald. Anthony Napolitano, a lifelong resident of the Northwest Side, grew up with it and now is encouraging the 41st Ward’s residents to call 311 whenever they get flooded.
“People got so used to the flooding, they just don’t call the city,” he said.
Napolitano, whose ward continues to get an “astronomical amount of flooding,” introduced a resolution in May to allow the city to help residents pay for flood control mechanisms like outside plumbing valves that stop sewer water from backing up into homes. No action has been taken yet on the proposal.
Street flooding a bigger problem
Data show more street flooding reports than basement problems. In the past two years, there were 16,147 water on street complaints compared with 11,246 reports to 311 about water in the basement.
Chatham resident Michael Wilson experienced sewer backups in his bungalow’s basement in spring 2019, just months after he bought his home. But it was mild compared with flooding this past May as sewer water sprayed up through all three drains, leaving more than a foot of standing water, destroying his furniture and drywall and leaving an unbearable stench.
“This one really took a toll on my basement. The water came in and inundated it,” Wilson said. “The TV, furniture, books were damaged. It all had to be tossed out.”
Brad Redrick, who moved back to Chatham in the late 1980s after growing up there, said he got almost half a foot of water in his basement in May but didn’t call 311. “It came up pretty tough,” he said. “That was the worst I’ve had in years.”
Why to call 311
The city uses 311 data along with hydraulic and hydrologic modeling to determine where to improve portions of the city’s sewer system, said Megan Vidis, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Water Management.
Each year, the city replaces more than 20 miles of sewer main and also rehabilitates about another 40 miles, she said.
As heavy rains fell in May, the Deep Tunnel was overwhelmed. The system’s reservoirs and tunnels held more than 8.3 billion gallons of water after May’s storms, said MWRD spokeswoman Allison Fore.
That wasn’t enough. The water district in mid-May went to its last-resort flood-control option of opening locks allowing the Chicago River to flow into Lake Michigan. However, the high lake level delayed the district’s reversal of river water into the lake, Fore said.
“Climate change has moved the goal post for us,” said MWRD Commissioner Cameron Davis, who said Deep Tunnel will have to be paired with more green solutions to control flooding. “You can’t engineer your way out of what the weather is going to throw at you.”
Explore Chicago flood complaints
Click here for map. This map displays over 27,000 complaints of flooding to 311 in Chicago, either for water on the street or in basements. Complaints are clustered together in groups, with the number of complaints visible in the cluster’s bubble. Click on a bubble to expand the cluster. Bubbles are colored orange to green, with orange representing more complaints and green representing fewer. Zoom in on you neighborhood to see how many complaints were on your block. Caroline Hurley/Sun-Times.