Cook County communities at-risk of flooding find 'green' solutions to combat rising waters

ByMark Rivera and Maggie Green and Tom Jones WLS logo
Tuesday, October 3, 2023
Communities at-risk of flooding find solutions to combat rising waters
Cook County communities at-risk of flooding are finding solutions to combat rising waters.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- It's a problem that researchers say will not be going away anytime soon: As the frequency and intensity of rain storms increases for the Cook County region, many homes and businesses are at risk or will be at risk of flooding.

In fact, an ABC7 data analysis found more than 200,000 Cook County properties are at major or severe risk of flooding in the next 30 years, according to data released by the First Street Foundation.

And with that realization, some organizations are empowering residents to come up with solutions to alleviate the rising waters.

For retired Blue Island teacher Mary Carvlin, the sound rain stirs anxiety.

"I used to love that (sound) too, like a rainy day where you'd curl up with a good book," Carvlin said. "That's not happening anymore."

Every severe downpour means potential pluvial flooding in her Blue Island home.

Pluvial flooding or surface flooding is a result of heavy rainfall in a short period of time overwhelming sewage and drainage systems, which researchers say is common in urban settings like Chicago.

"We're getting lots of intense rain in short periods of time," said Sarah Pralle, a professor at Syracuse University. "And that just means that a lot of the drainage systems in cities, especially with old sort of infrastructure, can't handle that amount of runoff in that quick of a time."

Massive infrastructure overhauls needed to fix this take time, money and forward thinking from all parties, advocates say, but there are other types of solutions some communities have explored, like rain gardens.

In the southern suburb of Riverdale, a rain garden was developed following a massive rain storm in 2013, which resulted in many homes in the area being flooded, and the governor declaring a major disaster.

Cyatharine Alias is a senior manager of community infrastructure and resilience for the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology.

"Rain gardens are one method of storm water management," Alias said.

What looks like an average garden at the Correta Pekny Park off of Stewart Avenue in Riverdale is actually a powerful investment for the community, Alias explained.

Beneath the colorful blooms, buried underground is a basin the size of a large concrete mixer truck, capable of collecting nearly 6,000 gallons of water.

Alias said the plants and soil planted here were handpicked, as they can absorb more water than on average.

"Green infrastructure," like this, is one of many solutions Alias said communities need.

"We need solutions that are flexible and able to respond to the different climate realities we're going to be facing," Alias said.

The project was not cheap, but Alias said it was paid for by federal and local grants, as well as some nonprofit sources.

"It's really helpful when solutions can do multiple things," Alias explained. "Here, we have flood, or storm water management. But we also can think about being in a green space, and the mental health benefits. Especially because it's right next to a playground, that way youth and their families might be able to explore nature in a different way."

Down in Carvlin's Blue Island basement, she has that 2013 storm memorialized on her wall, with a line marking how high the water rose off the ground and the date of the flood: April 18, 2013.

"It was a horror show," Carvlin said.

Carvlin said she hopes more communities will embrace solutions, like rain gardens and other forms of green infrastructure, to deal with surging storm water.

With more and more areas under development, Carvlin said, "There's a lot of coverage of ground that formerly, in nature's own way of doing things, was absorbing water. And so it's just simple mechanics, you have to think about how that water is not being absorbed and make it more absorbent."

ABC7 mapped out Cook County properties at risk of major or severe flooding. To see if your community is at risk, click here.