CHICAGO—As water from a savage spring storm began to recede from roadways, easing up on commuters whose morning drives were the stuff of nightmares, swollen rivers across the Chicago area threatened a second day of flooding and woe.
State officials warned that even as the rains subsided, rivers in the city and suburbs could reach record-high levels.
“What we have to do is understand that the Des Plaines River, the Fox River, the Rock River, the DuPage River, the north branch of the Chicago River, and Salt Creek-all of them are rising,” said Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who on Thursday declared Illinois in a state of emergency and activated the State Incident Response Center in Springfield to speed up assistance to areas affected by the storm.
The Mississippi River is already in the process of rising, and officials see the possibility that flood level records may be broken, said Jonathon Monken, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
“Based on the forecasting right now, we expect to meet and exceed flood levels—historic flood levels ... So record flood stages are absolutely possible,” he said.
As for more rain, meteorologist Mark Ratzer with the National Weather Service said there may be intermittent showers today, but nothing that would significantly add to the flooding problems.
“The worst is definitely over,” he said. “We’ve only got a few spotty showers left here.”
On Thursday, high waters led to intermittent closings on most major expressways, the cancellation of classes at hundreds of schools and prompted scattered evacuations from homes, apartments and assisted-living facilities. Several forest preserves were shut down due to flooding and the Brookfield Zoo closed its gates for only the third time in its history.
Lisle was one of the harder hit suburbs, and Mayor Joe Broda declared the community to be in a state of disaster.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been living here for 35 years,” Broda said. “It’s not a pretty sight.”
Along with power outages, all the east-west roads in Lisle were blocked by standing water. Fire and police crews used stretchers and wheelchairs to evacuate two nursing homes, and the American Red Cross set up an evacuation site at Benedictine University.
“I’ve lived here since 1973 and I’ve never seen a flood like this before,” said Diane Lyons, who lives with her sister, Tracy in a Lisle neighborhood where rescuers removed residents on flooded streets by raft.
Lyons said it was raining very hard when she left for work at 5:45 a.m. She decided to return home two hours later to check on her sister, who has medical issues. But by the time she reached their neighborhood, the block was completely flooded and people were being rescued by boat.
Tracy Lyons had already called for help and rescuers lifted her onto a raft and then carried her onto a bridge where she waited for a ride to the emergency shelter.
While they waited, they wondered what they would do next. The sisters do not have flood insurance, or extended family to turn to.
“We don’t know what we will be left with,” Diane Lyons said. “We might just leave the place and start over.”
By Thursday afternoon, three DuPage County communities — Downers Grove, Glendale Heights and Elmhurst — had been declared disaster areas by community leaders.
County spokesman Dave Haas said seven other communities were considered to be in a state of emergency.
In Elmhurst, Maureen McNicholas grabbed her two daughters and a couple of their friends to survey the water level in the Palmer Drive underpass, which the city floods to alleviate water overflow in other areas. The gray-brown water was about 20 feet deep.
“I’ve lived in Elmhurst my entire life and I’ve never seen it this high,” said McNicholas, 51, who told her kids about the underpass being built when she was in high school.
Her house remained dry.
“I feel really bad for all those people whose homes have flooded,” she said.
In Libertyville, after the rain let up Thursday, Mark Leider carried armfuls of soaked boxes, garden supplies and fishing gear from his garage, which was under at least six inches of water.
Garbage and debris floated in the street. The rushing water had carried four trash cans down the block and onto Leider’s property.
“When we woke up this morning it was like this,” Leider said over the hum of sump pumps. “The basement would be under six feet of water if we didn’t have the pumps.”
Down the street, Phil Mansfield stood on his front porch and assessed the damage.
A fence that ran along the west side of his house was partially underwater — so too was a for-sale sign in his front yard. Mansfield said he had planned to close on the house next Friday. Now, he’s not so sure. His sump pump in the basement was leaking.
“This is the worst it’s been by far,” Mansfield said, who’s lived in the area since 2007. “I basically stood here this morning and prayed for the water to go down. There’s nothing I can do.”
Kent McKenzie, emergency management coordinator for Lake County, estimated that 500 to 1,000 homes at the Chain O’Lakes could end up being affected by the flooding.
“This is a very serious situation,” McKenzie said at a press conference in Libertyville.
The county’s public works department had sent nearly 200,000 sandbags to local municipalities and townships, and was hoping for more as officials eyed the rapidly rising Des Plaines River.
In Morris, about 20 miles southwest of Joliet, floodwater forced the town’s hospital to divert ambulances away from its emergency room and cancel all elective testing and procedures. Early Thursday, water was seeping into the hospital’s lower level through a loading dock area, but a sandbag levy was built to address the problem and hold back the water, said spokeswoman Janet Long.
The hospital remained open and had power, but was only accepting foot traffic into its ER, she said.
Earlier in the day, the weather wreaked havoc on commuters. Some had to abandon their vehicles after stalling out in deep water, others crawled along the expressways, with some seeing half-hour commutes stretch out to two hours.
While CTA trains seemed to run well, Metra riders saw delays that reached over 100 minutes in some cases. Compounding the problem, Metra’s new multi-million-dollar Train Tracker system proved unreliable, confusing some riders who waited for trains that were up to two hours late.