Over 40 residents showed up at Monday’s River Forest village board meeting to voice their, at times intense, displeasure at what they say was a woefully inadequate response to the historic flooding the weekend of Sept. 13-14.
While trustees defended themselves against what they felt were blatant misconceptions, they for the most part listened for nearly two hours as people vented.
The 17 homes on Auvergne Place and River Oaks Drive suffered minor to major flood damage. Across the street, a dozen home owners and renters in the 8100 block of Lake Street suffered flooded basements. The 17 families living in the 8200 block saw their properties under water, with some first floor living spaces damaged and parked vehicles destroyed.
Key among the criticisms voiced were that the village was reactive rather than proactive, did too little too late, focused more on the flood threat at Chicago and Thatcher avenues, ignored the “obvious” threat of river flooding on Lake Street, had no plan for communicating with themselves or residents during and after flooding and provided no support to endangered residents.
There were also racial and socio-economic undertones to the comments. One of the most outspoken critics was Dr. Sharon Smith, who had eight feet of water in her basement on the far end of the 8200 block of Lake St.
“It’s not bad luck, it’s bad planning,” said Smith. “But then it’s not bad planning, because there was a plan. So who’s accountable?”
Smith accused the village of wanting to get the people living in the area out, if not because they are black, than because they are of a lower socio-economic level than the average River Forest resident.
“It’s because we’re invisible,” she said.
Noting that expensive homes in the River Oaks subdivision across Lake Street also suffered damage, Smith said, “Perhaps now that River Oaks has [suffered a loss] now they will pay attention to Lake St.”
Others said the village simply hadn’t been sensitive to their plight.
“We felt isolated and alone,” said Gino Pisani of the 8100 block of Lake Street. “Personally, I feel the village is a little in denial.”
One question that was raised repeatedly and engendered anger when not answered directly was why Lake Street was not sandbagged earlier than Monday morning.
John Allen, who lives at 514 River Oaks Dr., was one of many people highly critical of the village for not paying more attention to the Lake Street flood potential.
“You may have won a battle, but you clearly lost the war,” he said.
Trustee Russ Nummer touched on one point raised repeatedly in the week after the flood.
“There is such a plan. The problem is, we didn’t use it,” he said.
Plans for handling traffic, conveying information and setting up a central command post weren’t followed, he said.
Board members conceded there was a lack of communication during and after the flood.
“Certainly our communication and direction would have been enhanced if we had a plan for communication,” Village President Frank Paris said Tuesday.
He noted that he and Trustee Steve Hoke have briefly discussed the possibility of seeing to it that the next enhancements to the village’s dispatch center “include an emergency response component.”
Nummer went on to say that even if the village had utilized the response plan, it wouldn’t necessarily have made a difference.
“I’m not so sure it would have put one less inch of water in people’s basements,” he said.
As if to underscore the gap between the village’s response and residents’ experiences, Village Administrator Steve Gutierrez at one point mentioned that certain information was on the village’s Web site.
Someone in the audience called out, “there was no electricity!” while another said, “Steve, most people don’t have their computers on.”
Hoke, who along with Nummer spent much of the weekend on the flood scene, said Tuesday that a thorough review and assessment is needed.
“While we can’t change the past, it is imperative that we measure our performance so that we do better next time,” he said. “I think it is indisputable that the Lake Street berm needs to be enlarged and the village emergency crisis preparedness and response could be improved.”
Hoke said four questions posed by residents during public comment require answers.
Is there anything the Village could have done on Saturday or Sunday which would have limited the flooding?
How did our leadership perform during the crisis, and what can we do better next time?
What must be done to implement an effective village-wide emergency crisis notification procedure?
What can we do now to ensure prompt effective post-crisis assistance in future emergency situations?
Public Works Director Greg Kramer told residents on Monday that village staff had already begun work on a post-mortem of the flood and their response. Paris said he expected a report to be presented to the board within the next few weeks.
“We will want an official report,” Paris said. “They’ve had a couple meetings so far, but there’s a lot more to go.”
Trustees expect a final report from staff by the first board meeting in October.
Paris also supported the appointment of a task force or working committee to assess the flood and recommend future responses. Several people at Monday’s meeting said they’d be willing to serve on such a committee.
“I intend to appoint a committee to study the matter,” Paris said. “It will certainly include several residents of the area on Lake Street.”
Paris said he hoped to have individuals selected within the next two weeks, and presented for trustee approval at the next village board meeting.
“All village board members are anxious to improve the village’s disaster response,” said Paris.
“The bottom line is we screwed up,” said Nummer. “We didn’t anticipate how bad it would be.”