Storms, Flooding Hit Poorest Communities Hardest

In the Chicago area, flooding has often disproportionately hit the south suburbs, particularly low-income communities. And it’s going to get worse with climate change.

Flooding has affected many areas in the Chicago region but the hardest hit are often neighborhoods and suburbs that lack proper infrastructure and resources. (Photo illustration: Jason McGregor/Crain's Chicago Business)

This story was co-published with Crain's Chicago Business, as part of a Crain's Forum project on water.

A midwinter downpour flooded south suburban Ford Heights so badly in early 2018 that it shut down an elementary school in town. A family was rescued from their home by a rowboat. And a resident near Deer Creek says he caught fish off his front porch.

“Once that creek overflows, it’s over,” says Ricardo Bradford, who fished from his rental property. “There’s nothing you can do.”

Like many towns in Cook County’s south suburbs, Ford Heights has had to absorb an inordinate amount of flooding that has hit the Chicago area in recent years. Many of the south suburbs sit in a low-lying section of northeastern Illinois, but they also lack the infrastructure needed to contain often-teeming waterways that crisscross the region.

Ricardo Bradford
Ricardo Bradford said he fished off his front porch during a 2018 flood in Ford Heights. (Brett Chase/BGA)

And the situation will get worse with climate change. Weather forecast models predict harder and more frequent downpours, which inevitably will further overwhelm stormwater systems designed long ago, before laws were passed to prevent development that exacerbates flooding.

The concerns aren’t limited to the south suburbs — they affect towns throughout Cook County, including Chicago, where officials say the Deep Tunnel project won’t fully prevent flooding.

But one constant is that those areas most affected are those with the fewest resources — often the poorest neighborhoods and communities of color. 

In Chicago, 87 percent of flood damage insurance claims were paid between 2007 and 2016 in minority communities, according to an analysis by the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology.

It’s also in towns such as Ford Heights, where nearly half the households fall below the federal poverty line and more than 90 percent of residents are black.

“With all the other needs these communities are grappling with, if you’re already struggling to make ends meet and dealing with flooding, too, it can really compound problems for low-income and people of color,” says Kate Evasic, a senior planner at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

CMAP flooding graphic showing disparate burden on South Suburbs of Cook County
A map produced by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning shows the areas most susceptible to flooding. (Click to enlarge)

A first-of-its-kind flooding vulnerability map CMAP produced, as part of its regional outlook for the year 2050, shows the most vulnerable areas in Cook County are in the southern stretches of Chicago and in the south suburbs. The map aims to show areas that should be prioritized for help from federal, state and local governments, Evasic says.

“There is a real need to maintain and upgrade infrastructure to take into account all the development that’s taken place,” she says. “You’re building capacity not just for the storms today but the storms ahead.”

Southern Cook already is feeling the impact of heavier storms.

In Park Forest, weather station readings show the number of heavy precipitation days — in which rainfall exceeds half an inch — increased by an alarming 1.15 days each decade between 1953 and 2018, according to an analysis for the BGA by Illinois State Climatologist Trent Ford. 

“Such a trend in heavy precipitation days makes it more likely to have more frequent, impactful heavy precipitation, which can result in dangerous flash flooding in developed areas,” Ford says.

Among the hardest hit are communities such as Dolton, Riverdale and Robbins, towns close to the Calumet River and its tributaries with stormwater systems that can’t handle the rapid bursts of heavy rainfall and that lack the planning resources to re-engineer their communities.

Planners say some low-lying areas will always flood, and ultimately full-scale redesigns of entire portions of cities will likely be necessary. In other areas, green infrastructure — including retention ponds, gardens, drainage and other fixes — may help stem the tide.

“We’re trying to make our communities sponges,” Evasic says. 

But financing the work is a challenge, and any significant advancements will have to be prioritized — not easy in communities that are struggling.

Take Robbins. Village officials hope a $12 million project led by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District will help reduce some of the flooding caused by a nearby creek. 

But the town of about 5,400 residents is hoping to also secure government funding to redevelop an area devastated by years of flooding around the town’s Metra station. That’s a project CMAP and the Regional Transportation Authority are studying, but it remains to be seen whether it will ever be started.

“There’s always been some seasonal flooding, but it has gotten a lot worse over time,” says Robbins’ village planner, Maggie Catania. “It wiped out an entire part of the community.”

Cost of solutions unfathomable

More than 100 Cook County communities are in various stages of flood planning, an MWRD official says. But the price tag to completely fix flooding in all of Cook County is almost unfathomable.

Richard Fisher, principal civil engineer at MWRD, estimates the cost at around $70 billion, billions more than this year’s entire state budget.

MWRD only got authority from the Illinois Legislature in 2014 to work with communities to devise, finance and implement comprehensive flood plans. Before that, the villages and towns — many cash-strapped — “were pretty much all on their own,” Fisher says.

While engineers look for fixes by raising embankments or widening part of a creek’s flow along waterways, some communities also add green infrastructure to absorb and drain floodwater. Midlothian is getting both, but only after persistent pushing by residents for government help. 

Midlothian is a village inundated for years every time a nearby creek overflows, flooding the home of Helen Lekavich.

Helen Lekavich
Helen Lekavich persisted in her campaign to address flooding in Midlothian. Eventually, millions of dollars were spent to fix the problem.  (Brett Chase/BGA)

She complained. A lot. “The answer was, ‘We’re working on it,’ ” she says.

Eventually, she contacted state Rep. Will Davis, who set up a meeting for Lekavich to address dozens of government agencies at once. The need to include so many official bodies — all with a stake in flooding — illustrates another complexity standing in the way.

“I was amazed that so little rain could turn these backyards into lakes,” Davis says. “I was also amazed nobody was doing anything about it. Nobody was listening.”

MWRD is working on a $7.6 million flood mitigation project to help Midlothian. But an early step the village took, with expert help from the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, was to introduce more green space, permeable surfaces and other ways to absorb and divert water.

Robert Dean, chief executive of the nonprofit, says there’s a disparity among those towns able to tackle such dilemmas. Like CMAP, Dean’s group found that poor communities suffer the greatest impact from flooding. A report by the center last year looked at racial and economic disparity in Chicago. 

Dean says these communities face extra barriers to funding that would lead to solutions. “A lot of communities that are the most impacted are the least able to put in their own infrastructure,” he says.

Environmental reporting at the BGA is supported by Joel M. Friedman, President of The Alvin H. Baum Family Fund.