Bits of broken branches, a thick layer of mud and overturned trash cans were strewn about a large section of the city’s popular Riverwalk, which remained closed Monday morning after flooding from the record rainfall.
Yellow tape blocked most of the entrances to the Riverwalk along Wacker Drive, although several people were seen dipping under the tape, apparently seeking a shortcut.
A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago said the riverwalk is designed to flood. Locks to Lake Michigan were opened over the weekend amid the heavy rains, said Allison Fore of the water district.
“Reversing the river system will lower the water in the channel, not cause riverwalk problems,” Fore wrote in an email. “The riverwalk was designed to flood.”
Michelle Woods, riverwalk project manager for the city’s Department of Fleet and Facilities Management, agreed the riverwalk flooding “would have been worse” if the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District had not asked the Army Corps of Engineers to open the locks to Lake Michigan.
“It’s not good for the lakefront. That’s for sure. But, it also is part of protecting the rest of the city infrastructure,” Woods said.
The riverwalk was designed to withstand flooding and “performed as it was intended,” Woods said. But, city officials also anticipated that “certain portions would be submerged” from time to time during “major storm events we have a history of getting,” she said.
Four inches of rain in 24 hours qualifies as such a “significant storm event” that prompts river levels to rise “quickly and dramatically,” she said.
“We did intentionally try and make spaces very close to the water so you have that proximity to it,” Woods said. “Picking durable materials that can be power washed quickly and restored to public use. Picking the landscaping that can withstand being submerged for periods of time. These are all parts of the design that kind of tells a story about the riverwalk being next to a natural resource.”
In spite of the weekend closing, Woods said there are no plans to hire engineering firms to explore protective fixes
“Our plan is to make sure we can clean up the area as quickly as possible and restore it for public use,” she said. “We have crews out there cleaning it up now. Because we knew that, when we have these rain events, we would have to be power-washing and cleaning up, it’s part of our operating budget. It should be officially opened back up all of it tomorrow. As crews are cleaning up sections, they’re restoring it to public use.”
Riverwalk vendors between LaSalle and State Street expect to be opened beginning Tuesday, according to the city.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was entertaining Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras Monday morning, had planned to take him to the Riverwalk but instead met with him at City Hall and gave him a Chicago Cubs hat.
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) was “not surprised or disappointed” by the flooding. He noted that Chicago’s hottest new tourist attraction was “specifically designed to handle occasional flooding and submersion” because stormwater overflow occasionally impacts water levels.
“So, although clean-up and restoration is a headache immediately following an event like this one — the infrastructure itself was designed for weather events just like the one we had this past weekend.”
Heavy rains swamped the city Saturday, with about 4.19 inches at O’Hare Airport. It was the wettest day since 2011, when 6.68 inches of rain fell on July 23.
Contributing: Dan Mihalopoulos