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Mass Rainfall Leads to Widespread Village Flooding

Major rainfall in the past week has left many streets, garages and basements in Wilmette underwater, an occurrence that seems to affect the village all too often.

Street flooding in West Wilmette on May 17. Courtesy Karleen McAllester
By Jason Harward
May 20, 2020

Karleen McAllester, who runs an informational Facebook page for floods in Wilmette, says she and other residents are looking for a long-term solution.

“[Flooding] has been an ongoing issue, and that’s why I work with a lot of other people on the west side of Wilmette to find some larger-scale solutions,” McAllester said.

The village of Wilmette 311 Portal has received 139 different requests for assistance regarding flooding in just the past five days. There is also a resident flood survey that many Wilmette residents reported filling out, but the exact number of responses was not disclosed by the village of Wilmette.

In terms of exact rainfall counts from the past week as of May 18, Weather Underground shows parts of Wilmette received between six and eight inches of rain throughout the three days of May 14, 15 and 17. See table below for exact data.

Weather Station Rainfall by Date (in.)  
  May 14 May 15 May 17 Total Rainfall (in.)
East Wilmette 1.44 1.49 2.96 5.89
Wilmette Jr. High 2.55 1.96 3.78 8.29
Hibbard Wilmette 2.56 1.82 3.02 7.40
West Wilmette 2.08 1.81 2.98 6.08
Recent rainfall as measured throughout

The Chicago, IL precipitation record for the entire month of May stands at 8.25 inches in 2019, which broke the record of 8.21 inches set in 2018. Although the numbers vary between Wilmette’s weather stations, both the Wilmette Jr. High station's count of 9.23 inches and the Hibbard station’s count of 8.83 inches would break this record just over halfway through the month.

According to an EPA report from August 2016, “changing climate is likely to increase the frequency of floods in Illinois.”

Ross Doyle says Thursday night’s flash floods caused a sewer backup in his basement, which was the first time water has overflowed into his house during the two-and-a-half years he’s lived in Wilmette. Luckily, he says he was “semi-prepared” for potential flooding, and his basement did not suffer extreme damage.

“The thing that helped me was having a couple of water sensors in key locations and an emergency pump,” Doyle said

Basement flooding can be caused by a rising water table, sewage backups or seepage. Sump pumps can mitigate the effects of a rising water table, and standpipes or backflow check valves can help stop the damage from a sewage backup. Seepage in the basement likely requires foundation sealing.

Severe sewer backup flooded West Wilmette resident Debbie Lincoln's bathroom this past Friday morning. Courtesy Debbie Lincoln

Thursday night’s flash floods also caused an “unbelievable” sewage backup for West Wilmette said resident Debbie Lincoln, who discovered one of her bathrooms completely covered in water and sewage Friday morning. The mess took five hours for a professional cleanup crew to get under control, and Lincoln says she spent time cleaning it up even after they left.

According to Lincoln, a village representative visited her on Tuesday and explained to her that she needed a valve to prevent a backup from coming into her house. However, after multiple visits from plumbers in the past, Lincoln believes she had done everything correctly and hopes the village can find a larger solution to a problem that affected hundreds of residents just this past week.

“Is this just my issue or is it a village issue? We pay a lot of tax money here, why can’t this get fixed?” Lincoln said.

One of the ways in which the village of Wilmette plans to address the increasing likelihood of floods is with a $48-55 million project to construct more stormwater containers to increase capacity during flash floods. The project promises to “provide flood relief for 98 percent of the homes vulnerable to flooding west of Ridge Road.” Early construction is already underway, and you can see documented progress here.

According to Chicago's Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the flow of the Chicago Area Waterway System to Lake Michigan at the Wilmette Pumping Station has been reversed two separate times in the past few days to minimize overbank flooding. The first reversal took place on May 15 from 2:30 a.m. to 5:45 a.m., while the next reversal began on May 17 at 3:45 p.m. and continued until May 18 at 8:45 p.m.

Raw sewage backed up in Debbie Lincoln's laundry room as well. Courtesy Debbie Lincoln

One environmental concern related to the reversal of the Chicago River and North Shore Channel is the combined storm and sewage water that ends up pouring into Lake Michigan. Although this combined sewer system only services areas of Wilmette to the east of Ridge Road and, according to this village of Wilmette memo, the outpouring of sewage does not affect drinking water intake, it is still an issue residents are mindful of.

“It’s a concern for everyone because I love to be in the lake and, like everyone else, I swim and bathe in water from the lake,” McAllester said. “If you live in Wilmette, your water comes from offshore Wilmette.”

For more information or to report a flooding incident, contact Wilmette's Engineering & Public Works department by email at [email protected] or by phone at (847) 853-7500 during normal business hours or (847) 256-1200 after hours.

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