I-Team Report: Hung Out To Dry

November 17, 2010 (CHICAGO)

It's been more than two years since floods left parts of Cook County totally underwater, destroying basements and filling homes with raw sewage. For months, the ABC7 I-Team has been tracking where and how Cook County spent more than $10 million in federal disaster relief grants or misspent it. Now the program is over, but the problems are not, with many flood victims who were just looking for a little help say they've been hung out to dry.

"We're all in the same boat," said Mary Kaye Lavorato, Des Plaines resident. "You know, you take a third of my house and it's not usable."

Lavorato's basement has been destroyed twice: first during the devastating 2008 flooding when it was filled with sewage. Then, two years later, Cook County promised her a brand new basement paid for with federal disaster grant money. Contractors ripped out her walls, but then the money ran out. The grant ended, the office closed and work stopped.

"I've left messages, never returned phone calls, and at this point we really don't know who to talk to. Now we're victimized all over again. It's like, OK, he's gone, who do we turn to?" said Lavorato.

In Park Ridge, Charlie Melidosian wonders the same thing. Home video from 2008 shows when water poured into his house.

"The government comes in, destroys the basement, and then disappears to not be able to finish it, and we're not making much progress getting them to finish it up," said Melidosian.

Basement boxes are still in his garage and his collection of pinball machines are in the living room. Cook County spent $30,000 to demolish his basement, but the county doesn't have the money to put it back together.

"I'd like to see, somebody within the county, the Cook County system realize what they've done to people's lives," said Melidosian. "We're living our life as a zoo right now."

The zoo is where Cook County spent thousands in disaster grant money on a catered picnic in September, even as flood victims were trying to get county officials to finish paying what they had promised.

ABC7 has asked for spending records for the event, but the county hasn't provided any documents showing how they've spent any disaster grant money, despite numerous requests under Freedom of Information laws.

The ABC7 I-Team obtained county spreadsheets revealing that of the many flood families who were promised help none ever received a dime. ABC7 also discovered thousands and thousands of dollars from the disaster grant are sitting in an appliance store in south suburban Lynwood.

"We've been going out every day trying to get everybody taken care of as quickly as possible," said Richard Blink, county appliance contractor.

Blink Appliance and Kitchens warehouse is so stuffed with undelivered appliances they have to store extras in a truck out front. Federal tax money paid for more than 1,100 brand new washers, dryers, ranges and freezers for flood victims.

"Many people ask me about mortgages that they thought should be paid and other improvements to their home, that they thought should have been taken care of but weren't yet," said Blink.

"And you're just delivering the appliances?" ABC7 I-Team asked.

"Yeah, I say, 'I'm sorry, I don't know anything about that,'" he said.

Blink said Cook County also still hasn't paid for all the appliances and he hopes they haven't hung him out to dry.

"To this point, I think we've gotten I think 40 to 45-percent of the total," said Blink.

In 2008, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger toured the flooding in the western suburbs.

"We have had our emergency management agency working," said Stroger.

But two years later with Stroger on the way out, flood victims across Cook County say their emergency hasn't been managed very well.

"I think the whole program was kind of mishandled. I don't think they had a plan, I think it was just let's start giving out money, it just seems like it was really mishandled from the beginning," said Lavorato.

Cook County officials say they haven't given the public records ABC7 requested because they can't find any records of how the $10 million tax dollars were spent.

A spokesman for lame duck County Board President Todd Stroger says Friday is the deadline to submit spending records to the state of Illinois, and so the county is trying to reconstruct where all the disaster grant money went.

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