week before the maggots hatched, raw sewage gushed into Lori Burns’ basement for the sixth time in a decade.
Her brick bungalow in the Chatham neighborhood was among thousands of Chicago homes swamped by another rainstorm that overwhelmed the city’s aging sewer system. This particular downpour ended up as one of the worst on record. Two months’ worth of rain fell in two days during April 2013 — a storm marked by geysers of human waste bursting out of manholes, and a torrent of sewage and runoff surging through the Chicago River into Lake Michigan.
From the top of her basement stairs, Burns watched helplessly as murky water rose around the furnace, washing machine, dryer and water heater. Plastic storage tubs bobbed against the walls before flipping over and spilling their contents into the mire, ruining sweaters, photo albums, her mother’s wedding veil.
The city’s sprawling network of sewers, most of which were laid out during the last century, quickly fills to capacity during intense rainfall like the April 2013 storm and more recently when a month’s worth of rain fell in less than five days starting on April 27. Even a typical summer shower can trigger sewage backups in some parts of the city.
Chicago’s last two mayors promised to make the city a global showcase of green initiatives that soak up stormwater, but the administrations of Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel have been slow to respond to the city’s flooding woes. Now there is new evidence of the staggering impact on homeowners, renters and businesses, drawing attention to another challenge facing Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot and the City Council.
Flood losses in the city and suburbs cost taxpayers $1.8 billion in subsidized grants, loans and insurance payments between 2004 and 2014, according to a report released last month by the National Academy of Sciences. Only hurricane-ravaged areas of coastal Louisiana, New York and Texas received more federal flood aid during the decade.
The region remains vulnerable despite $3.8 billion spent on one of the most expensive public works projects in U.S. history: the Deep Tunnel, a labyrinth of cavernous underground pipes connected to massive reservoirs intended to “bottle up rainstorms” and keep Chicago and Cook County suburbs dry.
Chronic flooding in the Chicago area likely costs billions more than government data indicates, the new report’s authors concluded, noting that damages aren’t assessed unless the president approves a disaster declaration. Researchers are only beginning to understand the cumulative effects of neighborhoods flooding and sewage backing up into basements time and time again.
“Hurricanes understandably get all the attention, but try telling that to somebody whose home just flooded for the third time in the past year,” said Sam Brody, one of the report’s authors and a Texas A&M University professor who considers urban flooding a largely overlooked threat to the well-being of millions of Americans.
Climate change is making the problem worse. The latest National Climate Assessment, required by Congress and released by the Trump administration in November, stressed again that “heavy precipitation events in the Midwest have increased in frequency and intensity since 1901 and are projected to increase through this century.”
Federal spending on flood protection has failed to keep up with well-documented needs nationwide. Locally the challenges are exacerbated by a lack of coordination between government agencies and bureaucratic missteps, such as the Emanuel administration’s failure to secure a share of $1 billion offered by the federal government in 2015 to help cities prepare for a changing climate.
Computer models developed by the city can track down to the block level which neighborhoods are most at risk. Like so many other societal ills, the consequences of inaction hit the poorest Chicagoans the hardest. After the 2013 storm, city officials determined the damages were concentrated in low- and middle-income census tracts on the West and South sides, including the Chatham neighborhood where Burns lives.
As the water receded, Burns called her brother in the suburbs and asked him to stop for bleach on his way back to the South Side to help clean up the home where they grew up. Burns, a marketer for organic food companies, bought the home after their mother died in 2007.
Swapping stories about their days and nights hanging out in the basement as kids, Burns and her brother mopped up the muck, doused the floors with bleach and set fans out to dry out the rooms. They stuffed garbage bags with sewage-soaked mementos and clothes, and hauled them out to the alley, which already was overflowing with couches and appliances thrown out by neighbors who had suffered their own losses.
Burns stayed at her grandmother’s house down the street while hers dried out. When she stopped back a week later, she noticed the upstairs floors and walls were speckled with large, slow-moving flies.
Then she heard the buzzing behind the basement door.
“When I opened the door, it was like something out of ‘The Amityville Horror,’ ” Burns said during a recent interview, recalling the late-1970s film about a young couple who buy a home haunted by malevolent, supernatural forces.
Flies covered everything in Burns’ basement. It turned out the sewage backup had left thousands of eggs in the drain pipe. The eggs had hatched into maggots, creating a swarm of what plumbers call sewer flies.
Stomach-churning, to say the least. But unlike a hurricane or other, more well-known type of disaster, a city plagued by water-logged basements and infested with sewer flies doesn’t draw armadas of TV cameras and hourly updates on the 24-hour news networks. Charities aren’t urging Americans to donate money to help others in need after a Chicago rainstorm.
Another reason why the scope of local problems remains largely unknown: Many residents are reluctant to talk about repeated flooding of their homes, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a nonprofit group that after the 2013 storm organized community forums, dubbed “gross gatherings,” where flood victims were encouraged to share their stories.
Some are embarrassed or blame themselves, the group discovered in a survey of participants. Others fear their homes will decline in value.
One of the only ways to track the impacts is through 311 calls. More than 2,500 Chicagoans called to report water in their basements during the 2013 storm, which caused widespread damage and led to a federal disaster declaration.
Since July, the city has logged more than 3,900 calls, including more than 500 between April 27 and May 5, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis.
Calls came from all 77 community areas. But more than a third were from homes in eight low-income, predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the South and West sides: Auburn Gresham, Austin, Roseland, Washington Heights, West Pullman, Chicago Lawn, South Shore and West Englewood.
“We know those calls represent just a subset of what’s happening across the city,” said Harriet Festing, an urban planner and activist who organized the gross gatherings at CNT, helped prepare the National Academy report and co-founded another nonprofit called the Anthropocene Alliance to raise awareness about climate impacts in local communities.
“It’s disgusting. It’s shameful,” Festing said. “But the city of Chicago hasn’t been forced to pay the price because these impacts tend to be felt quietly by individual homeowners or renters, rather than the city as a whole.”
Valdora Winston, 82, and her daughter, Sonja Winston, 54, have lived in a brick bungalow in Gresham for decades without any major flooding issues. After the late April downpour, sludge-laden water coated their basement floor.
They’ve made multiple calls to 311 and, like others in their neighborhood, plan to talk to their alderman. But they don’t know who will fix the problem.
“The city won’t call you back,” Valdora Winston said. “We get scared every time it rains,” her daughter added.
On Wednesday afternoon, after only a few drops fell from an overcast sky, Sonja Winston walked to the basement door and opened it up.
“Can’t you smell it?” she asked about the lingering stench.
In the multi-room beige basement, below a pristine living room where plastic covers protected white couches, the floor was clean but the air was damp. Speakers and rugs and tables were stacked on top of couches and chairs.
“It was so terrible,” said Sonja Winston, pointing out the multiple drains that bubbled up throughout the basement. “It looked like seaweed almost.”
“I’m just so disgusted,” her mother said. “I’m a very clean person. I can’t stand the smell.”
Chicago’s struggle with chronic flooding begins with its location. The city was built on a swamp, and storm runoff has become more difficult to manage as the region has been paved over during the past two centuries.
Every neighborhood has an origin story related to water. Chatham is one of the lowest points in the city, located in what once was a natural bowl of wetlands and marshy ground called Hogs Swamp. Hegewisch, on the Far Southeast Side, was built by developers who filled in a natural water passage used by native tribes. Albany Park, on the Northwest Side, is another low-lying neighborhood hit repeatedly over the years when the North Branch of the Chicago River spills over its banks.
Or basements, which over the years have increasingly been transformed from dank, unfinished storage spaces into carpeted family rooms, extra bedrooms and man caves.
To make matters worse, sewers in Chicago and older suburbs were designed to handle runoff as well as waste from homes and factories. When it rains, the combined sewers quickly fill up, forcing a noxious brew to flow back into basements and out of dozens of overflow pipes into local streams.
For decades, the official response to the region’s flooding problems has been the Deep Tunnel, known formally as the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan. Built by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, a taxpayer-funded agency that operates independently from Chicago and Cook County, the system has been under construction since the mid-1970s. It isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2029.
Brian Perkovich, the district’s new executive director, said the system worked as designed during the recent rainfall in late April and early May. More than 11 billion gallons collected in the tunnels and reservoirs, he noted, and the district was able to avoid opening locks and gates that separate the Chicago River system from Lake Michigan, the region’s chief source of drinking water.
However, the tunnel system was filled to capacity and another 5.5 billion gallons of sewage-laden runoff poured into river channels throughout the city and county during the steady downpour — an environmental problem Deep Tunnel was built to eliminate. Sewage overflows also are an indicator that basements are flooding, essentially turning scores of homes into mini-stormwater reservoirs.
“We’re still trying to figure out what the new normal is so we can optimize the system and make improvements to meet these challenges,” said Perkovich, an engineer who previously was the district’s assistant manager of maintenance and operations.
The budgets of the district and the Chicago Department of Water Management are still dominated by big-ticket construction projects. So is their planning; one of the district’s recently proposed solutions to flooding involves a massive expansion of the Deep Tunnel that would take decades and billions more to build.
In response to detailed questions, a water department spokeswoman sent a three-paragraph email noting the city has spent $875 million on 145 miles of new sewers during the past 12 years. Another 354 miles of the network have been relined to extend the life of older pipes.
The department declined to indicate if any of those projects eliminated bottlenecks in the system that increase the risk of basement backups.
During the late April storm, city and district officials held a news conference to tout a new $70 million stormwater tunnel intended to prevent flooding in Albany Park. They told reporters the tunnel kept water off the streets and ensured more than 300 basements stayed dry.
Barbara Sherman, one of 11 neighborhood residents who called 311 to report basement flooding during the storm, lives just outside the protected area. Almost every time it rains, she said, runoff from the alley collects in her yard and eventually seeps through the basement windows.
“I had to wade through ankle-deep water just to get to my garage so I could go to work,” she said. “I call the city. I tell them what happened. Sometimes they send somebody out. But nothing changes.”
Some community leaders are embracing smaller-scale, neighborhood-focused projects designed to provide relief by keeping stormwater out of sewers.
The Center for Neighborhood Technology is nudging government officials to change their focus with a program it calls RainReady, which combats flooding with building, plumbing and landscaping improvements that in some cases are coordinated with sewer upgrades.
Residents in south suburban Midlothian pressured their elected officials to sign up for the program. The group also has worked with residents and public officials in Blue Island, Calumet City, Calumet Park, Dolton, Riverdale and Robbins.
More recent converts include Oak Park and Wilmette, both of which offer grants to help residents install rain gardens, regrade their lots and make other improvements to protect their homes from flooding.
In Chicago, an ambitious version of the program developed for Chatham has been repeatedly delayed by the Emanuel administration, even though local, regional and federal officials set aside funding years ago.
“A tremendous amount of work has been done in recent years on developing solutions,” said Rob Moore, who leads a climate preparation team from the Chicago office of the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Chatham pilot is just one of several initiatives ready for a new mayor to get behind.”
Karen Weigert, who served as Emanuel’s “chief resilience officer” for five years, pointed to signs of changing attitudes. Chicago Public Schools, for instance, agreed to design some of its new playgrounds and athletic fields with flood protection in mind. Blueprints have been drawn up to install permeable pavement in parking lanes and divert street runoff into basins planted with trees and native plants.
Missed opportunities are easy to find. The city recently spent $12 million rehabbing the Chicago Public Library branch in Chatham. Outside the front door is a parking lot of fresh, impervious concrete.
A few blocks away, Lori Burns grew tired of waiting for the city. With help from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, she hired a plumber after the 2013 storm who dug up the front yards of the two homes she owns in Chatham and installed flood-protection devices, known as backflow valves, that allow sewage to leave but not flush back. She pulled gutter downspouts from the sewers and diverted them into plant- and rock-filled gardens in the yards.
Last month, she made her last payment on a $15,000 loan from the Federal Emergency Management Authority, aid that only was available because the storm had been declared a disaster.
Her basements are dry now. But she thinks often about neighbors whose basements continue to flood, and how they quietly suffer every time it rains.