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Emanuel showcases $70 million stormwater diversion tunnel in Albany Park

The Albany Park had been prone to flooding, such as when this photo was taken in 2008. Here, two residents try to keep storm drains open in the 4900 block of North Drake. | Sun-Times files

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday cut a ceremonial ribbon to showcase a $70 million underground pipeline that has already proven its worth in alleviating flooding that has plagued Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood.

“This tunnel has been activated four times. And we’ve already had four success stories. We’re four-for-four with no flooding,” said First Deputy Transportation Commissioner Tom Carney.

“Today is our version of the parade and pep rally after you win the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup.”

Emanuel said “seared in my memory” is the Albany Park storm that prompted his daughter Ilana to take pictures of the devastating flood damage and email that photographic evidence to FEMA.

“At least in our family lore now, it’s gonna go down in history as the first electronic communication to FEMA about a flood disaster,” the mayor said.

He added: “This has been one of the rainier springs and summers. This tunnel has already been used four times. No flooding in basements. No disruption to families. No lost food in the refrigerator — unless you have a teenage boy. That’s a whole different thing. It’s just a locust coming through the kitchen.”

The one-mile tunnel is located 150 feet below Foster Avenue and runs east from Eugene Field Park to the North Shore Channel.

During heavy rains, the pipeline moves excess water from the north branch of the Chicago River into the North Shore Channel, a drainage canal that runs from the Chicago River north to Wilmette in Lake Michigan.

“In essence, the tunnel serves as a second river making sure the above-ground channel doesn’t overflow and flood neighborhoods like Albany Park,” Carney said.

Now that the stormwater diversion tunnel has been completed and tested — at a cost $15 million higher than originally anticipated — the next step is to work with FEMA to remove the flood zone designation for residents of 336 single homes and multi-family buildings once besieged by flooding.

“If we’re successful, it means that your home insurance will change. It will go lower,” the mayor said.

Seven months before Chicago voters go to the polls, Tuesday’s belated ribbon-cutting allowed Emanuel and local Ald. Marge Laurino (39th), one of his closest City Council allies, to showcase a pre-election plum with the potential to change lives.

“The Albany Park community is delighted that, from this day forward, flooding will be a part of our history. And I’ll sleep better because I couldn’t sleep when it rained,” Laurino said.

The alderman said she will never forget being on “sandbag duty” with Emanuel when severe floods hit Albany Park in 2008 and again in 2013.

“People had to be taken from their homes in these inflatable row boats and we actually lost two houses,” she said.

Those worrying days are over: “Mission accomplished,” Emanuel declared.

“In my tenure as mayor, we’ve had four, 100-year weather events. That’s climate change. Things that you never think were gonna happen, happen with more frequency,” the mayor said.

“The Albany [Park] neighborhood and surrounding community is better prepared,” and not just for heavy rain, Emanuel added. “We now have the confidence to rebuild a baseball field [at Eugene Field Park at the western end of the tunnel] that used to be wet for two or three weeks after a rain.”