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High and Dry

The flood waters have receded, but home owners' anger over tardy relief is rising

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By Ben Joravsky

It took less than 15 minutes for heavy rain to flood Vernon Williams Jr.'s basement with dark and stinky sewer water.

But it took over three weeks for the state to officially seek federal relief for Williams and all the other west-side flood victims, which means it will be at least another few weeks before they get assistance for their losses--if they get it at all.

State, local, and federal officials say they're processing relief papers as fast as they can, though few flooded-out west-siders believe them. "They talk about the great service they give us, but meanwhile I'm stuck with at least $20,000 worth of damage and boxes of ruined business documents," says Williams, a real estate manager and consultant who lives in Lawndale. "Do we have to march on City Hall for basic service?"

His saga began with the early evening rain of August 16. Well, it wasn't a rain so much as a deluge, as some parts of the city were hit with four inches in 90 minutes. The rainwater overflowed the city's sewer system and poured into the Chicago River. Eventually the river's Lake Michigan locks had to be opened to drain the overflow.

"The sewers are designed to take what's known as a five-year rainfall, that is, the rainfall that would occur about 20 times a century," says Mike Kertez, spokesman for the city's sewer department. "This was a 100-year storm, an overwhelming storm."

Even Deep Tunnel, the federally funded multibillion-dollar underground canyon, was overwhelmed. "The storm dropped 11 billion gallons of water and Deep Tunnel holds 1.7 billion--obviously it filled very quickly," says Kertez. "To give you an idea of the force, the water rose so fast through Deep Tunnel that it shot through a 250-foot entry shaft and blew off an 18-hundred-pound manhole cover. There was a 30-foot geyser."

According to Kertez, the storm knocked down about 400 trees, damaged 1,000 homes, and filled 10,000 basements with water. In the last few weeks city crews have hauled about 12,000 tons of couches, rugs, and other rain-damaged debris, says Terry Levin, spokesman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

Despite the storm's fury, some neighborhoods were untouched. "Some areas of the city got hit with five inches, others got barely a drop--it was purely random," says Kertez. "Last year, if you recall, the southeast side was hit hard with rain. This time the rain barely hit there."

To illustrate the rain's randomness, Levin, a north-sider, recalls a phone conversation he had at the height of the storm with his boss, Eileen Carey, a southwest-sider. "I looked out my windows and the skies were black and the lightning was spectacular and the rain was pouring," says Levin. "I called Commissioner Carey, and at that moment on the southwest side the sun was shining."

One hard-hit neighborhood was Lawndale, particularly the 1500 block of South Springfield, where Williams lives. "I was out of town on Saturday, but when I returned on Sunday I discovered water, water everywhere in my basement," he says. "It was six inches deep from wall to wall. I have an office down there, and everything was ruined--a VCR, business documents, irreplaceable old classic LPs, computer parts, sketch pads, and paintings. I couldn't begin to calculate the loss--how can you put a value on old documents? For the last few weeks I've been literally ironing documents to save what I can. On that first Sunday I was mentally devastated. I left and got a motel room. I couldn't take it."

On Monday, August 18, Williams started searching for assistance. "To my surprise, I discovered that the damage was not covered by private insurance," he says. "It turns out if the damage were caused by a runoff through the roof it's covered. But if it's caused due to a sewer backup it's not."

He called the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which handles weather-related disaster-relief efforts. "FEMA told me, 'Until or unless the governor declares a state of emergency we can't do anything,'" says Williams. "In other words, it all starts on the local level. I said, 'What should I do?' They told me to contact the local government.

"So I called the mayor's office, or the number for general inquiry. They said, 'Contact FEMA.' I said, 'Wait a minute, FEMA told me to call you.' They started in with, 'Oh, it's not our fault.' You know, real defensive stuff, no attempt to help me at all, just trying to cover themselves. I could have spent days like this, just bouncing from one agency to the other. I said to myself, 'Fine, I'm not going to let these people give me the runaround. I've got the Internet, I'm going to use it.'"

Over the next few days Williams sent E-mail messages to congressmen Luis Gutierrez, Bobby Rush, and Danny Davis; state senator Ricky Hendon; Mayor Daley; Alderman Michael Chandler; Governor Edgar; President Clinton; and the Sun-Times and the Tribune. Daley and Clinton responded with computer-generated notes. No one else, not even the papers, wrote or phoned back. No one toured the neighborhood or checked the damage.

"Where were the politicians to show their empathy? Why weren't they coming out to lend a hand?" says Williams. "In the suburbs, when they get rain the politicians are out there right away. I do a lot of business out in the suburbs so I know how much faster the reaction time is."

It's understandable, perhaps, that Edgar, a Republican, wouldn't come to the aid of a Democratic bastion like the west side as quickly as he'd help victims in the floodplains of Republican Du Page and McHenry counties. (As for why taxpayers should bail out people who live on floodplains, that's another story.) "What really bothered me is how slow and indifferent the city's been," says Williams. "They're a lot faster when they're chasing after you for a parking ticket."

City officials contend that they acted as fast as they could, quickly mailing damage-assessment surveys to residents. FEMA officials say proper procedures were followed. "The process for delivering assistance is triggered at the local level, which means the city has to ask the state and the state has to officially ask the president for relief," says Linda Sacia, FEMA's public affairs officer in Chicago. "The city did an excellent job by turning out surveys asking residents to describe the damage."

Before relief is granted, there must be what the feds call a "preliminary damage-assessment meeting" of state, federal, and local officials. According to FEMA records, the state did not ask FEMA to set up such a meeting until September 2, more than two weeks after the flood. The meeting was held Friday, September 5, and the "damage-assessment teams" toured hard-hit neighborhoods such as Lawndale on Monday, September 8 (coincidentally, the same day Williams got his flood-damage survey from the city).

Why the delay? The answer, say officials, is that there was no "health-safety" urgency to spur them to move any faster.

"The first thing you have to assess in any situation is, are there critical issues? Is the health and safety being threatened?" says Sacia. "Well, yes, there's been serious damage to the basement, but people can still live in their homes. The whole house hasn't been washed away or knocked down."

State officials agree that the flooding was not a critical health hazard. "It's understandable that home owners are frustrated, since they had sewage back into their basements," says Tim Touhy, a press spokesman for Governor Edgar. "It's a hardship, but it's not an emergency like you see with a tornado."

But doesn't Edgar move faster for flooded suburbanites? "No," says Touhy. "Again, it's a matter of the severity of the emergency."

On September 10 Edgar officially asked Clinton for flood relief. That means all information about damage must be sent to Washington and reviewed by President Clinton. "The president might grant relief, he might ask for more information, or he may deny relief," says Sacia. "There's no set time frame for him to decide by."

Sacia says federal relief is apt to be no more than Small Business Administration loans that must be repaid at 4 percent interest. Even for those, Williams and his neighbors can expect to wait at least a few more days, if not weeks. "I guess we don't have enough influential people, like precinct captains or politicians, living on our block," says Williams. "I've been living in this city long enough to know that would get us faster service." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Vernon Williams Jr photo by Jon Randolph.

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