Get ready for bigger storms. Old solutions aren’t enough.

No government agency or individual can control the weather. But we can be better prepared for the kind of flooding the Chicago region just experienced.

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A worker with Chicago Water & Fire Restoration removes garbage and destroyed objects from Suzy Donnelly’s basement in Berwyn, which flooded during a storm 24 hours earlier on July 3.

A worker with Chicago Water & Fire Restoration removes garbage and destroyed objects from a basement in Berwyn that flooded during the July 3 storm.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel added, “To do the things that you think you could not do before.” The recent storms that hammered our region created a crisis for many metro region residents.

Just ask Robin Harmon on the West Side, whose basement took in more than a foot of water. Yes, she has insurance, which will help. But flooding can hurt property values. Flooding can create mold, a serious public health threat. And flooding can mean countless hours of work that will never be reimbursed by insurance.

“It’s a nightmare. Once you have water standing in your home, you have to stop everything you’re doing to deal with that,” Harmon laments. That means spending time filing insurance claims. Dealing with contractors. Staying home from work. “We experienced flooding only about five years ago, too.”

No government agency or individual can control the weather. But we can be better prepared for the next storm, which is going to happen, even if we don’t know when. With the right public support, these ideas can be instituted or accelerated:

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  • Remove more unneeded, impermeable pavement. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District has several funding programs to establish green infrastructure that allows rainwater to naturally soak into the landscape. That’s better than partially treated water overwhelming the region’s storage capacity and winding up in the Chicago River system and, as a last resort, Lake Michigan.
  • Establish a department at the MWRD that promotes flood justice. The district has committed staff, but there simply aren’t enough of them to keep up with the demands of communities that get hit with flooding time and time again — let alone as demand grows into the future with more climate change-induced storms. A department (which some of us refer to as to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, or JEDI) could have even more power to aid communities that have limited capacity to apply for funding that could help reduce their suffering.
  • Expand green infrastructure to suburban schoolyards. Right now, the Space to Grow program, financed by the MWRD, Chicago Public Schools, the Department of Water Management, with support by heroic non-profits like the Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands, funds green infrastructure around Chicago schools. But suburban Cook County schools don’t have similar opportunities because an efficient partner-based cost-sharing system doesn’t exist like it does in the city. Creative financial structures are the only thing standing in the way of us making more progress for suburban communities that deserve help just as much as city schoolyards. And, along the way, we can teach the next generation of students about how they can help their communities be better prepared, too.
  • Phase out the use of fossil fuels to power our utilities and prompt intense storms like the kind we just endured. The MWRD is on a trajectory for 100% renewable energy under its strategic plan. There’s no reason any utility should be contributing to climate change, let along spending money to do it.
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Intensifying storms will continue and the district’s pumps, plants and pipes will, likewise, never eliminate all threats to our waterways and our homes. But there are things we can do to act now so that future crises don’t go to waste.

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Cameron Davis chairs the MWRD’s Stormwater Management Committee. He previously served as President Barack Obama’s Great Lakes “czar.” MWRD Commissioner Yumeka Brown is vice chair of the Stormwater Management Committee. She is a governance expert and environmental justice advocate.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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