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EDITORIAL: Envisioning a Chicago future without massive flood damage

Flooding last month in Fox Lake, Illinois, along the Chain O' Lakes. | Gilbert R Boucher II/Daily Herald via AP

The massive flooding ravaging parts of the Chicago area is doing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage, and all because of a basic failure of planning.

It is foolish that so many homes and businesses stand in low-lying areas that are susceptible to flooding. It need not be that way.

Among possible solutions, we support a call for the federal government — which already is spending billions of dollars on flood insurance for some properties that flood again and again — to buy out more homes and businesses that repeatedly flood and raze them as the owners voluntarily move elsewhere. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, on its own, already has done some of this.

EDITORIAL

Most of the Chicago-area flood damage sustained this month so far, caused when the Des Plaines River, Fox River and other waterways overflowed their banks, has been to structures built before about 1970, which was when local governments finally got serious about limiting development on flood plains. Of newer buildings that have been damaged, most were built closer to 1970 than to today. Ever-stricter rules limiting construction in flood-prone areas, as well as requirements that developers include compensatory water storage space when they do build on a flood plain, have made a difference.

But for homes and businesses that remain in low-lying areas, their only salvation may be federal flood insurance — and that program expires in September. Congress, understandably, is looking for ways to stop paying to repair or rebuild the same structures over and over. The flood insurance program itself is flooded — in nearly $25 billion of red ink. Congress also faces the expensive challenge of updating outdated maps of flood-prone areas even as the Trump administration proposes slashing $190 million a year from the mapping program.

Critics of federal flood insurance, which has been around since 1968, have long argued that the program encourages people to hang on to homes along waterways, perhaps because they like the view, instead of moving to higher ground. Ideally, the critics say, we’d see more people like the 900 citizens of Downstate Valmeyer, who moved their entire village atop a nearly bluff after a series of Mississippi River floods, most recently in 1993.

Under a law Illinois passed in 2014, the MWRD has bought out 56 Cook County homeowners who voluntarily moved elsewhere. The state of Illinois and the Federal Emergency Management Agency also have set aside funds to remove buildings in floodplains, although progress has been slow.

Local governments should continue such projects as building levees and new storm water storage sites and encouraging “green infrastructure,” such as permeable pavement and rain barrels that keep rainwater runoff from rushing into waterways. Also, area residents can reduce water use on “overflow days,” when the region’s drainage system is at or above capacity.

Yes, the MWRD this year is bringing its new McCook Reservoir on line. But the Chicago area can’t build reservoirs large enough to hold all the water that swamps us in big storms.

Scientists tell us to expect heavier rains as the climate warms. We can stack the sandbags every time a thunderstorm moves in. Or we can do a better job of staying out of the water’s way.

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