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After what was called a 100-year storm last August, River Forest was hit last weekend with an even worse flood. Heavy, steady rains stemming from the remnants of Hurricane Ike reached the Chicago area less than 24 hours after the largest one-day rainfall in recorded Chicago history-6.6 inches-pushing the Des Plaines River to flood stage.

Those not dealing with flooded yards and basements battled extreme traffic congestion due to closed roads that brought some streets to a standstill.

Over eight inches of rain water overloaded sewers and caused the already swollen river to spill over onto the west end of Lake Street and flood Chicago Avenue from First Avenue to Thatcher Avenue. To the north, river water gushed and churned against the underside of the North Avenue bridge on the west side of Thatcher.

The flood was widely viewed as the worst in memory. Standing on Lake Street across from the flooded entrance to the Waller Gates area, west of Thatcher on Monday afternoon, Village President Frank Paris said it was worse than the terrible 1987 deluge that brought in the National Guard.

“In all the places I can remember seeing in ’87, we weren’t as high as we are now,” he said.

Village Administrator Steve Gutierrez praised the efforts of the village’s public works, fire and police personnel, as well as assistance from Forest Park and other neighboring towns. But the efforts of citizen volunteers, he said, made all the difference.

“Without the volunteer help, we wouldn’t have won the battle,” he said Tuesday. Sunday was spent just trying to fend off the rising water and address the two key flooding points at Chicago and Thatcher and on Lake Street at the river.

“Everybody who’s anybody is out there on the scene,” current village trustee and former fire chief Russ Nummer said Monday. He spent the weekend at the scene with officials and monitored local developments via cellphone.

Monday afternoon, after completing a third sandbagging of the intersection at Chicago and Thatcher, officials worked with volunteers to pile sandbags on a large berm just north of Lake to seal off the river from the low land to the east. Public works personnel then began to pump flood water from the street and sewers back into the river. That berm had been constructed after the 1987 flood to protect homes in the Waller Gates subdivision to the northeast.

“Within a half hour we [saw] a reduced water level on the east side of the earthern levee,” said Public Works Director Greg Kramer.

Officials are dealing with scores of homeowners looking to return to homes on and near Lake Street, west of Thatcher, abandoned due to flooding. Those homes remained uninhabitable through Monday due to issues of natural gas and electrical service, as well as bio-hazards.

Location made all the difference

People living on the 8100 block of Lake Street had greatly different experiences. Lake Street runs downhill from Thatcher, with the result that a mere 50 feet can mean the difference between a maddening “nuisance” and major disruption.

Ned Waith stood outside his home at the east end of the 8100 block emptying water from a wet vac. He’d had about two inches of water in his lower level, part of which he uses as living space.

“To be honest, I’m feeling lucky,” Waith said. “This may be a big nuisance, rather than a disaster. I can deal with this,” he said. Johann Buis (pronounced ‘base”) returned home from church services around noon, Sunday, to find a far more serious situation in his townhome, less than 100 feet west of Waith’s.

“The girls opened the doors and yelled because they saw water in the basement,” he said. Luckily, family and friends were able to help Buis, who is a professor at Wheaton College, remove most of the items from his downstairs study.

But not all. Books and files and even computer keyboards and screens sat piled out front of the home, reduced to so much expensive garbage. A hose attached to a friend’s sump pump ran up the stairs and out to the parkway, where it gushed water out into the flooded street.

Buis said he felt lucky in the face of his misfortune. “We’ve been more fortunate than some of our neighbors, who’ve had total flooding of their basements” he said. “I’ve got no more than 18 inches.” Twenty feet to the west, entire front lawns lay submerged.

Controlling traffic flow

Flooded thoroughfares crossing the river wreaked havoc with traffic in and around River Forest Monday into Tuesday, as hundreds of commuters passing through town vainly sought alternative routes. With the exception of the Eisenhower Expressway, all but one of four major east/west thoroughfares through Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park remained closed into Tuesday.

With only Madison Street and Washington Boulevard open Monday, the result was hundreds of drivers unfamiliar with River Forest’s side streets clogging its north/south streets seeking alternative routes. Throughout Monday, Washington was a two-lane, bumper-to-bumper crawl, with hundreds of vehicles waiting to turn onto it off of side streets.

Such major east and west routes as Roosevelt Road, Lake Street and Chicago Avenue were closed west of Thatcher. North Avenue, a major east/west truck route, didn’t re-open until Tuesday morning. Lake Street reopened Tuesday afternoon. Chicago Avenue is expected to be cleaned up and open to traffic sometime Thursday.

Helping hands

Linda Shaughnessy contacted us after a very soggy weekend in River Forest, asking us to “please thank the following companies who generously and without hesitation donated food and beverages for the sandbag volunteers and the police and fire departments:”

  • Alpine Food, 7538 W. North Ave., Elmwood Park
  • Starbucks, 7601 W. North Ave., RF
  • Grandma Sally’s Restaurant, 7301 North Ave., RF
  • Jewel Foods, 7525 W. Lake St., RF
  • Jimmy John’s Sanwiches, 350 Circle Ave., Forest Park

“We are all grateful for the professionals we can count on for help,” Shaughnessy noted, but “I was touched by just how much community service extends to their families as well. I witnessed one senior River Forest fireman’s wife filling sandbags in the pouring rain.

“We are also grateful for the generosity of strangers in neighboring communities. I would like to note the giving hearts of an Oak Park couple who drove to Chicago Avenue near Trailside Museum and then followed me through traffic to Lake and Auvergne to help carry food several blocks in the pouring rain to hand out to volunteers.”

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