Taxpayers foot bill for flood victims' zoo day

September 15, 2010 The invited guests were all Cook County flood victims.

As victims of recent flooding wait months or years for government aid and grants, officials who administer cook county's flood relief program embarked on a novel plan of their own to make the wait more tolerable, raising the question: "You did what with my money?"

Marilyn McGuire did not intend for a mattress in her basement to become a water bed.

"The basement flooded - I got about two to two-and-a-half feet of water," said McGuire.

That is where her bedroom, her daughter's bedroom, a bathroom, kitchen and laundry room were all located.

"It was so much damage and I had to move back upstairs because of the mold," said McGuire. "With the furniture and everything, I'm sure I've spent at least $12,000-$13,000. I've spent that much money and I still can't go down there without a facemask."

The flood was two years ago. This past June, McGuire applied for a Cook County disaster grant, filling out reams of paperwork.

"I come home from work one day and I have a letter from the Cook County disaster grant, and I got so excited," said McGuire. "I thought it was finally about an award or that they had set up to come out for a home inspection and it wasn't. It was an invitation to the zoo."

Indeed, it was an invitation to celebrate at the Brookfield Zoo: a picnic in the park last Sunday afternoon for flood victims - paid for with federal flood relief money.

The outing was complete with music and dancing, a nice buffet, fountain drinks, face painting for the flood victims' kids, specially-printed party t-shirts, and door prizes.

"Nothing happens in the county, in the state, or the federal government fast enough for anyone's liking, yours or ours," Cook County's disaster grant program director Barry Croall told the crowd at the party.

Croall reports to Cook County President Todd Stroger. The county had to obtain a flood relief program extension because there was so much red tape.

Back at home, McGuire declined to attend the county's zoo party.

"I did call to ask what was going to occur at the zoo," said McGuire. "I was told that we were being given a day at the zoo to relieve the stress of everything we are going through. My stress will be relieved when I'm given help."

There was some help at the county zoo event, including prostate screening, and some of those who did attend were satisfied even if they have not received their flood relief funds.

"It's good to do this," said Carol Lockett. "It shows that they care."

"It was a nice thing for the county to do," said Charlie Melidosian.

However, even some flood victims who attended wondered about the wisdom of it all.

"A lot of the grant money must have went to the event," said Holly Dunivan. "Hopefully, the people who needed help got help," said Holly Dunivan.

No flood help yet for McGuire, a 22-year city employee now finding black mold in her flood-damaged home. She does, however, have some advice for county flood program officials.

"If a man is drowning, you throw him a rope, you don't throw him a party," she said.

"It's certainly great PR just for families to come together in the 'united-we-stand' approach," said Croall. "As much as we talk about statistics and numbers and dollar amounts of damage, when it's your home, it's your home, it's your life, so we wanted to gather so they could share and be together."

A spokesman for Stroger Wednesday night stood behind the private picnic as a good use of public money, and said that it really did not cost that much, even though the catering bill was $23 per child and $28 per adult, $2,000 to rent the pavilion, and so on.

Private businesses donated the prizes, according to county officials, who are quick to point out that there was absolutely no cost to county taxpayers. However they say that federal tax money was used.

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