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Illinois Valley Flood Resiliency Alliance gets proactive addressing future floods

Ottawa leads the way in flood management

MARSEILLES – As the Illinois River rose and water flowed over the Marseilles Dam in 2013, barges slammed into the levee along River Street, causing a breech and the evacuation of hundreds of residents.

Two of those Marseilles residents, Jim Burns and his wife Karen, bought a home in the early 1980s just two blocks from the river. They never thought they would see the river flow through their home. But it did: Burns said the couple had 14 inches of water through their first floor, and river sediment filled the garage and driveway.

“In all my years in Marseilles – and I was 62 when the flood happened – I’ve never seen these homes flooded,” he said. “I was born and raised just four blocks away from this house.”

Like many of the residents, the Burns family didn’t have flood insurance. They didn’t know they needed it.

“For years, this was not considered a flood plain area. A few years ago that changed and we could have purchased flood insurance, but no one told us,” he said. “Of the 100 homes damaged, only three had flood insurance.”

To help prevent homes like the Burns’ being destroyed by future floods, as well as businesses and infrastructure, state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, and officials from several communities along the Illinois and Fox rivers including Ottawa and Marseilles, joined forces and created the Illinois Valley Flood Resiliency Alliance.

The IVFRA is competing for a $1 billion federal grant.

Hundred-year flood

Ottawa building and zoning official Michael Sutfin understands what Marseilles and the Burns family have had to deal with.

Ottawa has faced three “hundred-year” floods in seven years.

“I think the name is misleading, and people often question why a hundred-year flood is happening more often. We had it in 2007, 2008 and 2013,” Sutfin said. “The name has changed to a 1 percent event, which is more accurate.”

The name change is because there is a 1 percent chance of it happening in any given year. Locally, along the Illinois and Fox rivers, it has happened several times in recent years.

Sutfin also noted floods are the only weather event measured by rarity versus severity. Tornadoes and hurricanes, for instances, are measured by scales people recognize and in a manner where they can understand the damage caused.

The Enhanced Fujita scale (EF-Scale) rates the strength of tornadoes in the United States and Canada based on the damage they cause. The Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale is a categorical classification of hurricanes based on their wind speed.

In the past eight years, Sutfin and the city of Ottawa have been working on a flood plan to help eliminate the loss of life and minimize damage to homes and businesses.

Sutfin became certified as a flood manager for the city and got to work adopting and enforcing higher standards for land that falls inside the flood plain.

In the floods in 2007 and 2008, there was significant damage to homes and businesses. By 2013 when the all-time record event hit, formerly referred to as a 500-year-flood, there was no infrastructure loss and no life loss.

“The flood was 13 feet higher then we’ve ever seen,” Sutfin said. “We lost some picnic tables and docks.”

As Rezin toured the areas affected by the 2013 flood, she questioned why Marseilles had so much damage and Ottawa did not. Rezin’s district includes about 100 miles of the Illinois River and 30 miles of the Fox River, which meet at Ottawa.

“I saw firsthand in Ottawa what being proactive looks like,” Rezin said.

Becoming proactive

As the IVFRA competes for the $1 billion federal grant, Sutfin said the group is in phase two of the grant competition, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. While several other areas in Illinois are in competition for the grant, it is the IVFRA the state has chosen to partner with.

Rezin said the grant money, if received, will be used within the IVFRA area to help participating municipalities become more flood ready.

“It’s not a question of if we flood again, it’s a question of when,” Rezin said.

The first goal was to have every community in the region have a certified flood plain manager so all the municipalities could learn from one another and start to implement strategies to prevent future flood damage.

Rezin said there are now 24 certified managers and the alliance is still working toward getting one in every community. She said the more that join the IVFRA, the better communication is and the better chance to avoid loss of life and structures.

Morris does not have a flood manager, but representatives have been attending alliance meetings.

“I have been in discussion with the city attorney to see if we need an ordinance to create the flood manager title,” Morris Mayor Richard Kopczick said. “Flooding is currently addressed by the Building and Zoning officer.”

Kopczick said while the flooding in Morris in 2013 wasn’t nearly as bad as what Marseilles faced, the city has taken action on flood mitigation.

Grundy County was declared a major disaster area after the April 18, 2013, flood caused the Illinois River and area creeks to flood into city streets, filling some people’s homes with water and leaving many stranded.

In 24 hours Morris received 3.88 inches of rain. Continued rain pushed the total over 4 inches. The river crested at 24.91 feet, surpassing the 2008 record of 24.8 feet.

Emergency responders made about 75 rescues, many on Cemetery Road in Morris, the first day of the flooding. In addition, the historical aqueduct carrying the I&M Canal over Nettle Creek collapsed. No one was killed or severely injured from the flooding.

Morris Hospital had to evacuate 47 patients during the flood, based on recommendations from the Emergency Management Agency, which was worried the water would continue to rise.

“The city, as well as the Morris Hospital, have taken mitigation efforts to make sure the hospital doesn’t flood again,” Kopczick said.

Burns said it makes sense to have the communities come together in the alliance.

“I think any time you get a bunch of heads together, it’s a good thing,” he said.

Burns said the combined knowledge of a great group makes him feel better that there will be solutions to prevent his newly rebuilt home from becoming part of the river again.

Education is key to the success of the alliance, Sutfin said.

“We want every part of this coalition to adopt higher standards. It’s much easier to do it collectively,” he said.

It’s also important when addressing the issues that municipalities realize what one does can affect another town up or down river, Sutfin said.

If all municipalities in the region use the same regulations such as the flood plain compensatory storage regulation – which would mean that for every one shovel full of fill you place in the flood plain, you take 1.5 shovel full of fill out – they can be sure that the flood mitigation they are planning won’t be negatively affected by their neighbors.

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