Intelligence Report: The precedent Chicago ignored

February 7, 2011 4:25:19 PM PST
In the wake of the blizzard, Illinois' two U.S. senators are asking whether Lake Shore Drive needs better storm damage protection.

They want the Army Corps of Engineers to look into that. Hundreds of motorists were stranded for hours on the Drive.

In this Intelligence Report: The precedent that Chicago chose to ignore.

Those cars marooned in the snow on Lake Shore Drive have become the icon of the 2011 blizzard, and even though the emergency has passed, one question remains: Why didn't the city follow its own template for Lake Shore Drive from the 1999 storm that was similar in size, scope and warning?

The senators stood in the snow along Lake Shore Drive Sunday to request a government study to determine if areas of Lake Michigan's shoreline adequately protect the Outer Drive.

"Last week was a real test to the vulnerability of Lake Shore Drive," said Senator Dick Durbin. "We know that a lot of people were inconvenienced and a lot of dangerous situations were created on the Drive, but as we look at the aftermath of that great blizzard, we should be aware of a few things."

This shouldn't have been news to the city after the way Chicago officials handled the 1999 blizzard.

Twelve years ago, city workers heaped 65,000 sandbags into piles creating walls to prevent high winds from spilling Lake Michigan onto the Drive. They did this three days before the storm hit.

Last week's blizzard came with even earlier warnings.

On the day of the '99 storm, the Drive was closed to traffic due to blinding whiteout conditions. Snow plows were diverted to other roads.

As was the warning last week, in 1999 forecasters cautioned that if sustained heavy winds came from the northeast, Lake Shore Drive would be submerged. But back then pumps supplied by the Army Corps of Engineers stood ready near the Drive.

"It's a little hard for me to stand and be a critic of what occurred during that blizzard," said Durbin.

Monday, the I-Team asked Streets and Sanitation officials why the same preparations for Lake Shore Drive weren't made this year but received no reply.

The next time, Chicagoans may need to trust their own instincts about using the drive, as Senator Mark Kirk says his own mother reminded him.

"Last night, driving home from a dinner downtown with my mother off Lake Shore Drive, she talked about 25 years of commuting on this road and said there were occasionally times she thought she might not make it home given the inclement weather on the lake," said Senator Mark Kirk.

When why the same sandbagging and closure protocols from 1999 weren't followed last week, the Streets and Sanitation spokesman said that Streets and San isn't the right agency to answer that.

So far the I-Team hasn't heard back from the mayor's chief of staff, Ray Orozco, who said he made the decision last week not to close Lake Shore Drive and admitted the outcome had angered Mayor Daley, but that the city stood behind it.