This is part three in a series of seven articles by We are Water Evanston, a participatory community-based research project that explores our relationship and concerns about water. For more information on this series, click here.
The cost of the Evanston floods is too high to ignore. Floods and storms caused an estimated $ 6 million in damage along the edge of Evanston Lake in 2019 alone, and costs could continue to rise as episodes of heavy rainfall become more and more common due to climate change. Beyond the economic costs, home flooding can be devastating for priceless and irreplaceable items like treasured family photos and wedding dresses.
Last June, storms across Chicago dumped more than a month of rain in just a week, causing flooding in basements, backyards and streets far beyond the lakefront. With increasing flooding, it’s crucial that Evanston implements long-term solutions.
Floods among residents of Evanston
In order to understand the Evanstonians’ flood experiences, We Are Water Evanston, a community-based participatory research project, surveyed more than 750 residents and spoke in depth with 75 residents last year.
Sixty percent of survey respondents were concerned about flooding on the streets, with the largest proportion living in the sixth and seventh neighborhoods. Almost half of survey respondents were concerned about basement flooding and about one-third about sewer backups.
As with many infrastructure issues, Evanstonians were concerned about the equity issues associated with flooding. A Third Ward resident who teaches at a local elementary school said Fifth Ward, the historically black neighborhood of Evanston, is overlooked during flooding.
“When [the sewers] back in the fifth ward, it’s like everyone is taken care of immediately, ”she said. “The City is cleaning up the gates and all that. And in the fifth room it isn’t, and I’m concerned about the unfairness of the way we’re dealing with it. ”
Our survey results also showed that residents of the Fifth Ward were the most likely to express concern about sewer backups and basement flooding as well as street flooding.
However, in our analysis of the 311 calls made to the City between January 2014 and June 2021, residents of Ninth Ward were the most likely to call with problems related to street flooding, and residents of Second Ward were the most likely. to call for problems related to basement flooding. This difference may be due to the fact that not everyone reports a flood when it occurs.
In a focus group with members of the Watershed Collective, a program within Citizens’ Greener Evanston, Richard Lanyon, former executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) and former chairman of the Evanston Utilities Commission, stressed the importance of reporting flooding. “If you don’t report them [flooding events], it does not become a matter of records, ”said Lanyon. “The City may not make the necessary improvements to reduce the risk of future flooding. “
When residents fail to report flooding, the City must rely on incomplete data in different areas of Evanston. Raising awareness among city officials and public works personnel could help educate residents about the resources available during flooding and the importance of reporting flooding. This awareness could also build confidence that the City will respond properly to flood reports, so residents find it worth calling 311.
Survey data reveals discrepancies between concerns about flooding and reported occurrences of flooding in Evanston, which could be due to lower reporting rates in some neighborhoods.
The impact of the floods in Evanston
Interviewees from the nine neighborhoods of Evanston and Skokie, including homeless residents, shared a range of challenges they faced as a result of flooding, particularly property damage and damage to personal belongings.
A civic leader shared her family’s experience with the loss of personal items in a basement flood: “I feel so bad. Many of my photos of my children, my boys. I had a lot of photos in the basement, and they’re gone.
Many residents also faced mold build-up in their homes after flooding, a young resident told us his family had to remove drywall all over one side of the house.
Mold growth is not just a nuisance for families. It can also have significant health consequences. A 2007 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 21% of asthma cases can be linked to humidity and mold exposure in homes.
Many species of mosquitoes breed in standing water. When this water persists for days, it can increase the risk of diseases such as West Nile virus. Indeed, in July, the North Shore Mosquito Abatement District (NSMAD) reported the first mosquitoes positive for West Nile virus this year in Evanston.
Additionally, a homeless Evanstonian who uses a motorized wheelchair said the flooding was debilitating for people with disabilities. “Sometimes the intersections or the streets were completely impassable for me,” said the resident. “I’m in this wheelchair that goes so high off the ground, oh my God, what am I going to do?” I can’t get over this.
Causes of the floods in Evanston
According to experts, flooding in cities like Evanston is typically caused by intense rainfall that overwhelms the city’s drainage infrastructure.
Many of our interviewees made the same link between heavy rains and poor drainage, either because of the age of the system or because drains are often clogged with garbage or leaves. For example, a resident of Ward 8 we spoke to was incredulous about the garbage: “When I see people throwing garbage on the road, I think to myself, there’s a trash can right there, why don’t you have it. you just put in the trash? When you throw stuff on the road, it goes into the drainage and then it clogs the whole place.
Clogged drains are one piece of the puzzle in Evanston. However, paved surfaces, which prevent water from being absorbed into the ground, and local soil characteristics also contribute to flooding. “Most people don’t really realize how Evanston is a very clayey soil that just doesn’t drain very well,” said a municipal officer from Seventh Ward.
What is the City doing against flooding?
As climate change and increasing rainfall threaten the Great Lakes region, it is crucial that Evanston residents and city officials continue to consider and advocate for solutions to the flooding.
Evanston hired a consultant in 2020 to perform a hydraulic and hydrological assessment, which will provide more information on the stormwater flow through the city, both on land and in the drainage system. This assessment will allow the City to determine potential avenues to fight against existing floods and prepare for the future impacts of climate change.
In the meantime, there is a range of solutions to tackle flooding, which we will cover in our next article in this article. Evanston Roundtable series on water.
We are Water Evanston is a collaboration between researchers at the Northwestern Center for Water Research and community water activists in the Watershed collective, a subcommittee of Citizens’ Greener Evanston. This article is the third in a seven part series where we share key findings and actions related to water in Evanston. Follow We are Water Evanston on Instagram (@wearewaterevanston) and Twitter (@waterevanston).