Holding back the waters

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The river rose to the same enormous height as it had in 2008. But the damage from the Des Plaines River in River Forest from last week's soaking storms was much, much less. The reason goes back to something your dad tried to teach you: Learn from your mistakes.

With two huge floods in just three years — 2008 and 2010 — River Forest had a lot to learn about supposed once-in-a century floods. Some of the fixes were physical, some were logistical, and, as always, some came down to having the right people in place.

Chicago Avenue is still closed at the river as of Monday afternoon and Village President John Rigas says it is unclear when it will open as the river is receding only very slowly. But, says Rigas, a well-organized corps of volunteers and a focused village staff "did outstanding work" over the course of several days.

Rigas points to the efforts of the Citizen Corps, an all-volunteer group of locals, which formed in response to past flooding crises when the village was mainly overwhelmed by river flooding and had no resources beyond its small staff to battle the waters. That led to fancy houses in the small subdivision just north of Lake getting inundated with river water and the more modest brick townhomes on the south side of Lake being saturated.

Jim Flanagan, the chair of the local township governments' senior efforts, led a late charge in 2010 to help older folks in those townhouses. A hastily assembled batch of volunteers pulled sofas and Christmas ornaments, hot water heaters and clothing from those cellars, then raised money for replacement appliances and other immediate needs.

This time, the officially sanctioned Citizen Corps played an early and vital role with its core of 14 local volunteers and pre-arranged plans to draw on students from Concordia, Dominican and Trinity to jump into the breach.

Ron Sherman, a longtime River Forester and now retired from a career on the front lines of FEMA, works with Flanagan to plan ahead. Citizen Corps reps were at village hall on Wednesday night as the storm hit. Working alongside Eric Palm, the village administrator, and the police and fire chiefs, the public works head and the finance manager ("You have to track your costs from the start," says Sherman.) the Citizen Corps mustered its volunteers early. Those same volunteers were "honored" said Sherman to help with traffic control a day earlier during the funeral procession for Anne Smedinghoff.

Rigas gives credit to the decision of the village to rebuild the earthen berm that stretches through the forest preserve from Lake Street north toward Chicago Avenue for holding back a lot of river water. Originally built in the late 1990s, Rigas said the berm had settled by 18 inches. This year, the choice was made to supplement the berm with sandbags. Thirty-five student volunteers manned the sandbagging effort.

Rigas says that after Gov. Pat Quinn toured the flood site Thursday, the state quickly became more motivated to look at plans to expand the berm further north.

The raging Des Plaines was not, ultimately, the cause of the major damage in River Forest in the Flood of 2013. Rainwater, not river water, is what flooded Lake Street, says Rigas, and it is what flooded basements north of Division, too. Berms won't fix that problem, he says, and points to the current plan to spend $19 million on a total redo of sewers in that part of town. He says there are separate and quirky issues with the sewers at Lake Street and the river that will also need to be fixed.

Sherman said his group always needs volunteers and asked those interested to reach out at rfcitizencorp@gmail.com.

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