For residents of low-lying neighborhoods in Evanston and Chicago, more intense storms fueled by climate change raise flooding risks despite sewer improvements
As a longtime chronicler of Black history on the North Shore, historian Morris “Dino” Robinson Jr. runs into a recurring snag while documenting generations of life in Evanston.
“I always asked about archives. ‘What do you have of family history?’ What do you have of photo albums?’” said Robinson, who runs the Shorefront Legacy Center in Evanston. “‘Oh, we lost that in the flood.’ And that would be the end of discussion. Sometimes it’s hurtful for families, it’s history that they lost.”
While decades of basement flooding took their toll on family keepsakes, the backups and standing water that plagued some Evanston residents for generations were intended to be mostly a thing of the past. A $210 million sewer improvement project completed between 1991 and 2008 was designed to reduce the backups.
Now though, it seems another source is exacerbating the same old problem.
Evanston, Chicago and other suburbs have taken steps in recent years to upgrade sewer systems in an effort to reduce flooding. But those same towns are now examining how heavier and more frequent storms caused by climate change could result in more water and runoff seeping into homes.
“If I’m hearing the weather and there’s a huge storm coming in, I’m like, oh, God. OK,” said Gilo Kwesi Cornell Logan, who lives in the Logan family’s longtime home on McDaniel Avenue. “It could be the middle of the night, if there’s a good rain, I might wake up and go check (for water).”
Neighborhoods in low-lying areas and near greater Chicago’s engineered waterways — many of them communities of color — are at an increasing risk for flooding due to storms intensified by climate change, according to Flood Factor, a website that models future flooding risks across the nation.
More than 80 scientists, technologists and analysts contributed to the peer-reviewed database created by the nonprofit First Street Foundation in New York, which launched in 2020.
Local neighborhoods made the national group’s map. Among those areas cited were neighborhoods along the North Shore Channel in Evanston and Skokie; those near Bubbly Creek and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, like Bridgeport, Back of the Yards, McKinley Park and Lawndale; and homes near the North Branch of the Chicago River, like Wicker Park and Logan Square face increased risk for flooding.
Dave Stoneback, Evanston’s public works director, said he worries the city’s sewer system won’t have the capacity to manage future storms with increased intensity brought about by climate change.
“We’re trying to get a handle on that,” he said.
“What we’re seeing in Evanston more now is that people are having rainwater seeping into their basement through walls and cracks and things like that,” Stoneback said. “So it’s rainwater. It’s not sewage water backing up.”
Evanston aldermen in 2020 approved a two-year stormwater survey to learn more about how these more intense storms might behave and how to handle the water they leave behind. This spring, crews are installing flow monitors in the sewer system in hopes of tracking water after a big storm and learning more about the new normal.
A similar effort is underway in Skokie, Evanston’s neighbor across the North Shore Canal.
In Chicago, officials with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago say once the Deep Tunnel reservoir expansion is completed in 2029, it will be able to accommodate some of the increased water flow. The Deep Tunnel is a $3 billion system of giant tunnels and reservoirs intended to prevent flooding and keep pollution out of waterways and Lake Michigan. District leaders have acknowledged that even when the expansion is complete, extreme storms may still overwhelm the system.
Meanwhile, climate experts say the Chicago area should prepare for more rain as a new way of life.
In the past century, average annual precipitation has increased by 5% to as much as 20% in pockets of Illinois, and there are 40% more days with 2 inches of rain or more, according to a climate change study released by the Nature Conservancy last week.
Illinois State Climatologist Trent Ford said this spring that all indicators show “more intense precipitation across the state.”
Specifically, Ford said, “the largest change has been in the northeast corner of the state, the Chicagoland area.”
For communities, Ford said, that means designing future projects to accommodate more frequent and more powerful storms.
“The models aren’t telling us that this is just some sort of part of long-term climate variability, and we’ll shift back to a dryer regime,” Ford said. “That may be possible, of course, but overall the models predict these issues will continue to be a problem.”
According to the National Weather Service, Chicago has experienced four of its five wettest years since 2008, with 2019, the third wettest and 2018, the fifth wettest.
That leaves many families wondering what the long-term solution should be for their increasingly wet basements.
Logan said his family has spent tens of thousands of dollars on repairs to a two-unit town home they own on Hovland Court in Evanston, where he, his wife, and later their three sons and two dogs lived for 23 years.
This year, the Logans joined his father in his parents’ ranch house on McDaniel Avenue to be together and help as Bill Logan, the city’s first Black police chief, grows older. The home, on a quiet street across from a wide, grassy park next to the canal, has been in the Logan family for 60 years. Tall trees shade the neighborhood, with the budding branches of spring stretching over the water and the homes.
Logan said family members care deeply about the home and have no plans to leave it. But they also want to take advantage of the available space. He and his wife have their bedroom in the basement, along with the laundry room, the furnace room and Logan’s office, where he works as a leadership and diversity consultant.
Logan said recent leaks damaged important books, family mementos and musical instruments collected from his travels to 23 countries.
“We definitely feel the loss. It feels like a waste. It feels, I think ‘sorrow’ is the word that comes to mind,” Logan said.
A history of flooding
For the early Black residents of Evanston living in the area bound by the triangle of the canal, the Union Pacific railroad tracks and Church Street, their presence was not by chance.
Redlining, home covenants and other forms of discrimination concentrated Black residents in the area that now encompasses much of the 5th Ward.
Robinson has collected oral histories, documents and artifacts for 25 years. He and Evanston historian Jenny Thompson wrote a 77-page report for Evanston’s reparations subcommittee, documenting efforts from 1900-1960 to segregate the city.
This slice of Evanston also has a long history of flooding, Robinson said.
Historically, the 5th Ward and a nearby portion of Skokie were part of Lake Michigan, Robinson said. Ridge Avenue, which runs north through the heart of Evanston, was actually a ridge, Robinson said. “The lake went up to the ridge and went around the ridge.”
When west Evanston was developed more than a century ago, the land still was “very swampy,” Robinson said.
In addition, said Stoneback, a number of homes along the canal were built below the canal’s high water mark, meaning that water flowed down into the homes when the canal’s water level rose.
According to the 2010 U.S. census, Black residents made up 18.1% of Evanston’s total 74,486 population, but represented about 46% of those who live in the four census tracts prone to flooding that sit east of and adjacent to the North Shore Canal.
In Chicago, more than 500 calls were made to 311 during a stormy week and a half in 2019, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis. More than a third were from homes in eight low-income, predominantly African American neighborhoods on the South and West sides: Auburn Gresham, Austin, Roseland, Washington Heights, West Pullman, Chicago Lawn, South Shore and West Englewood.
In the Chatham neighborhood, which borders Auburn Gresham, Lori Burns said recently that her neighbors are still prone to flooding even after the city improved the neighborhood’s sewer system about six years ago.
Burns qualified for federal aid after the area was declared a federal disaster in 2013 because of flooding. She upgraded her property with flood protection devices and gutter diversions, as well as a rain garden and other improvements.
“To have (the basement) be safe and clean, I’m fine with that,” she said. “If we can just have that for now, we can deal with comfortable and pretty when we save up the money.”
But it’s not enough to just tell residents what they need to do, Burns said. Professionals need to show them how to install some of the devices and plants that might help control flooding; otherwise costs could be even higher.
“I’m not a horticulturalist,” said Burns, and her rain garden — filled with thirsty plants to help soak up some of the runoff — needed to be installed professionally. That, and a new valve on her sewer, cost about $5,000, she said.
For those who can’t afford to spend money on a new pump or foundation, an expert also could walk around a home and point out easy fixes that might help, Burns said. Those include making sure neighbors point their downspouts away from each other so they’re not flooding one another’s basements.
“People need to know how to do things the right way,” Burns said.
Looking for future solutions
The North Shore Channel is a human-made canal completed in 1910, and is part of the Chicago water district’s engineering efforts. It runs from the North Branch of the Chicago River, through Evanston and Wilmette to the Wilmette locks at Lake Michigan.
The channel originally carried waste from Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka and other North Shore communities away from Lake Michigan, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Now, most of Evanston’s sewer and stormwater goes into a tunnel under the canal and south to the McCook Reservoir as part of the Deep Tunnel. If the tunnel and reservoir are full, like after days of heavy storms, the overflow again backs up into the North Shore Channel until the Wilmette locks are raised and it’s released into Lake Michigan.
That overflow still can flood homes as it waits to flow into the lake, Stoneback said.
In the past 12 years, Lake Michigan has been hit harder by overflow than it was in the previous two decades combined, mostly because of extreme storms. From 2007 through 2019, records show, the water reclamation district released more than 36 billion gallons of runoff and wastewater into the lake. By contrast, 12 billion gallons flowed out from 1985 through 2006.
At the water reclamation district, spokeswoman Allison Fore said the agency has stormwater master plan studies underway to examine the increasing frequency and intensity of storms due to climate change.
The water reclamation district is working with several pilot communities, including Chicago’s Far South Side, Harwood Heights and Northbrook, to develop “a community-based plan to address local flooding.”
The agency also is working with Friends of the Chicago River to inform residents about how they can help to reduce the flow into sewers during heavy storms.
Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, recommends taking shorter showers, flushing the toilet only when necessary, and holding off on running the dishwasher and washing machine until the storm has passed, among other efforts.
Outside, residents should disconnect downspouts from the sewer, she said, so the water flows into the garden instead.
Preserving local history
For Robinson, who has suffered two major basement backups and numerous smaller events in the 23 years he has lived in Evanston’s 5th Ward, flooding is where his mission began.
“One of the floods happened with our archives down here,” said Robinson, who has lived in Evanston since 1980. “Fortunately I had the wherewithal to keep things off the floor, shelves more than 8 inches off the ground.
“For me personally, this is where Shorefront started, in my basement,” Robinson said of the North Shore history organization.
Before redlining, west Evanston along the canal was largely undesirable for development, Robinson said.
“There were no roads this way. There were still apple orchards and open fields,” Robinson said. “The Ringling Brothers used to come to Evanston and you could set up in the 5th Ward. It was considered rural.”
In February, Robinson was recognized with a section of Church Street named in his honor.
Logan said he is working with Robinson to preserve his own family’s history at Shorefront.
The Logan family also is “mindful about how we’re storing things” in the basement, he said, keeping items off the ground and inside plastic bins. They’ve installed covers over the basement windows in an effort to reduce the water seeping in and are considering other measures.
“It’s kind of like a trial and error right now, to see what’s going to work,” Logan said. These efforts will help the family decide on next steps to protect the basement from future floods.
Still, Logan mourns what has been already been damaged.
“Separate of the loss of our comfort, time and money, I think of the loss for future generations,” Logan said. “Our kids, their kids, I think of that aspect of the loss, the multigenerational impact on the preservation of our legacy. Certain things that are lost just can’t be brought back.”