Mayor Brandon Johnson tours West Side flood damage as FEMA begins assessment

The federal agency’s review is the first step in getting a disaster proclamation and funds for repairs after a July 2 storm dumped 9 inches of rain in the Chicago area.

SHARE Mayor Brandon Johnson tours West Side flood damage as FEMA begins assessment
Adam Driver stands in his basement in the Austin neighborhood, Tuesday, July 25, 2023. The Drivers’ basement, which doubled as a room, flooded in early July due to heavy rainfall. They have not finished cleaning or repairing the basement, and parts of it are covered in mold. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Adam Driver stands in his basement in Austin. He’s been cleaning the mold on his walls with bleach and water, but the mold keeps coming back. His landlord is awaiting assistance before repairs are made.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Three weeks after flooding hit the basements of a quarter of the homes in Austin, Mayor Brandon Johnson toured the area with federal officials conducting a preliminary assessment that could help deliver much-needed aid to homeowners.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s assessment is the first step in getting a federal disaster proclamation after the widespread flooding during a July 2 rainstorm, said Mark Peterson, a FEMA spokesperson.

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The storm dumped 9 inches of rain in the Chicago area and flooded thousands of basements. Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a disaster proclamation on July 11 for Cook and other counties hit hard by storms and flooding.

Over the next week, seven teams from FEMA and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency will knock on doors and assess the damage in the areas hit hardest, Peterson said. The teams will also survey flood damage in suburban Cicero, Berwyn and Stickney.

The state can then use that survey to petition the Biden administration to make a disaster declaration and send aid through FEMA, Peterson said.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks to resident Adam Driver, whose house in the 4900 block of West Walton Street in the Austin neighborhood was flooded in the first week of July, Tuesday, July 25, 2023. Johnson, along with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) and Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) personnel met residents who were impacted by the flood. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks to resident Adam Driver, who lives in the 4900 block of West Walton Street in Austin. Johnson joined employees from the federal and state emergency management agencies and the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications to assess damage to homes flooded during heavy rains July 2.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

As Johnson knocked on doors in the 4800 block of West Walton Street, he assured residents that the government was doing everything it could.

But several residents told the Sun-Times the assistance has been slow in coming. Broken water heaters, furnaces, moldy drywall and ruined living spaces were common complaints.

“It’s never fast enough,” 37th Ward Ald. Emma Mitts told the Sun-Times.

But she was relieved officials came out Tuesday to kickstart the process of delivering federal aid.

“It was like a celebration for me. It’s been a long time, given the fact that we’ve been struggling with it every day,” Mitts said.

Adison Cunningham (right), a disaster service specialist with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency surveys flood damage in the 4800 block of West Walton Street on Tuesday, July 25, 2023.

Annie Magett (from left) and her grandson LaMar Magett discuss the July 2 flood damage to their basement in Austin Tuesday with Dan Ryan, a Federal Emergency Management Agency specialist, and Adison Cunningham, his counterpart with the state of Illinois.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mitts has been urging her constituents to report flood damage to 311, the city’s non-emergency help line. The Department of Streets and Sanitation has gone to about 400 homes in the area to clean out damaged basements, mostly for seniors, Mitts said.

Citywide, more than 12,000 reports of flooded basements were filed with 311 in the first two weeks after the storm, according to a WBEZ analysis. That’s more than the number of basement flooding reports filed in all of 2021 and 2022 combined.

Mitts said her ward has never seen a disaster like this.

“We’ve had floods before. We’ve had FEMA. But nothing like this,” she said.

She hopes the government makes infrastructure improvements to prevent similar flooding disasters in the future. The homeowners who spoke with the Sun-Times on Tuesday all said the water entered their basements through drain pipes.

Austin resident Jimmy Blaine stands near a drain pipe where he said water was spewing out during heavy rainfall in his basement, which flooded in the first week of July, Tuesday, July 25, 2023. Blaine said his furnace, a shoe collection, a dryer and a PlayStation console were damaged.

Austin resident Jimmy Blaine stands near a drain pipe where he says 37 inches of water backed up into his basement.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Jimmy Blaine’s basement was flooded with 37 inches of water. The water destroyed the living space for his son and nephew. He had to throw out a king-size bed, TV and video game console.

Blaine, 55, said he needs assistance to repair the home’s furnace and water heater. He doesn’t have insurance and barely gets by on his $970-a-month disability checks while taking care of five children.

Blaine said he’s stressed about making repairs, but he felt good that Johnson knocked on his door and assured him that help would come.

“I feel wonderful that they’re letting me know [about the assistance] because the winter is coming,” he said. “I’ll try to remodel. But I’m disabled, and I can’t move like I used to. I’m hopeful.”

Across the street, Adam Driver has been struggling to clean the mold from his damp basement drywall. He’s been wiping the walls with bleach and water every day, but the mold keeps coming back.

Driver is a renter and said his landlord is waiting to get assistance before gutting and fixing the place. That puts Driver in a tough spot. He doesn’t want to move, but he wants the landlord to make repairs. He said he’s been talking with a lawyer about his options.

Mold covers the walls of a room in Adam Driver’s basement in the Austin neighborhood, Tuesday, July 25, 2023. The Drivers’ basement, which doubled as a room, flooded in early July due to heavy rainfall. They have not finished cleaning or repairing the basement, and parts of it are covered in mold. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mold covers the walls of a room in Adam Driver’s basement.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“I’m just trying to get everything back right for the wife and kids. They’re really emotional about it,” Driver said.

State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, D-Chicago, toured the flood damage earlier Tuesday with federal and state officials. He said the federal assistance is badly needed.

“There’s really been no major relief yet. It’s a signal to the feds that we’ve really got a problem,” Ford said as he walked in the 4800 block of Rice Street.

He talked with one homeowner who was still without hot water.

“There’s a lot of people just like her,” Ford said.

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