Still Stewing 

The flood of '97 and its unpleasant residue

By Ben Joravsky

It's been three months since the summer's great deluge dumped four inches of rain on the city, and as far as Daley administration officials are concerned it's a fluke of nature in the receding past not worth remembering.

But northwest- and west-side residents haven't forgotten. The stinky sewer water that filled their basements may have dried, but their anger at City Hall remains as strong as ever. "They let us down. They turned their backs on us. They pretended like we didn't exist," says Wayne Strnad, who lives in Belmont-Cragin on the city's far northwest side. "We're the forgotten neighborhood, the forgotten ones."

This isn't the first time residents have complained about the way the city handled the storm (Neighborhood News, September 19). And from the start, Mayor Daley and his aides have insisted they did almost all that could be expected--dispatching workers to clean up the streets and asking the feds for disaster relief. They point out that it's not their fault that Chicago was hit with a torrential downpour, which, when you get down to it, wasn't all that horrible--not in comparison to, say, the floods that overtake whole towns along the Mississippi or even the rain that fell last year on the far southeast side.

Such arguments hardly placate the residents. They say the city has failed even to acknowledge the dangers of having four to six feet of sewage in their basements. They say neither Mayor Daley nor Governor Edgar toured the flooded area, and over a month passed between the storm and the official request for federal relief, which came only after angry home owners marched on City Hall and the State of Illinois Building. Residents of North and South Austin say they still can't get a meeting with the health commissioner to talk about potential safety hazards, just as residents of Belmont-Cragin haven't been granted a meeting with the sewers commissioner or budget director to see if there's money available for new sewers.

It's a curious thing, this contrast in perspectives. For Mayor Daley prides himself on having learned the lessons of the blizzard of '79, when Mayor Michael Bilandic was bounced from office for not responding to the needs of a snowbound city. "It's not just that the politicians didn't tour our neighborhoods, it's that they dismiss the whole thing like it was no big deal," says Dianne O'Quinn, a resident of North Austin. "Our basements filled with the most disgusting sewer water and they still don't pay attention. They decided that the flood wasn't a big deal and nothing we say will change their minds."

The complaints vary from neighborhood to neighborhood and often connect to older conflicts. In Belmont-Cragin, for instance, the flooding reminded residents of their long-ignored requests for new sewer lines.

"The problem here is relatively simple--our sewer pipes are too small to handle all the use," says Strnad, who has lived near the intersection of Fullerton and Central for more than 20 years. "Over the years the empty lots around here have been filled, the population's doubled--the sewer system can't handle the growth. We need bigger pipes."

For the last decade or so there have been floods every spring, says Strnad. "My friends say I have the patience of Job because every year I go through the same old thing. I call the Mayor's Office of Inquiry and Information--or misinformation--to complain. And every year I get passed around from one official to the next and nothing ever happens. Sometimes they send someone out who tells me what I already knew--our sewers are too small."

It doesn't help Strnad's cause that he lives in a political no-man's land. Younger Mexican-American families have been replacing older white ethnics in an area that's moved from ward to ward in recent remappings and has no strong ties to any politician willing to press its needs. A few years ago it was dumped into the 29th Ward against the wishes of the black incumbent alderman, Sam Burrell.

Strnad says Burrell's indifference is part of the problem. "I tried to meet with him many times to discuss the sewer and he stood me up," says Strnad. "I finally got a meeting by showing up to his office unannounced. That's when he said he would write a capital improvement proposal to get us a new sewer."

But no sewers were built and in August the rains came, overflowing most basements with at least four feet of smelly water. "The storm was on Saturday night, and you figured by Monday the city would be notifying us what to do," says Strnad. "But they didn't do a thing. They didn't tell us how we could get relief, they didn't come by to look at the damage. I found out that they were preparing damage assessment forms, so I went to Burrell's office and they didn't have any. I said, 'Are you going to have those forms ready to be picked up tomorrow?' And Burrell said, 'No, the office will be closed.' I said, 'What about Sunday?' He said, 'Jesus Christ, give me a break, that's a weekend.'"

By the end of August, Strnad and 20 other neighbors were picketing Burrell's office demanding better service. A public meeting was called, and things got ugly. "Burrell started yelling," says Edith Hidalgo, who lives near Strnad. "We started telling about the horrible condition in our basements, and he started telling us that 'You Mexicans are the trouble' and how he gets all these complaints about illegal basement conversions, and 'Everyday I get a call about you Mexicans.'"

While eager to stay out of 29th Ward political fights, city sewer officials say there's no indication that Belmont-Cragin needs new sewer lines. "They happened to be at the center of an incredibly hard-hitting storm," says one sewer official. "There's no way we could afford to build a sewer system that could handle a storm that powerful."

Burrell agrees. "The flooding and the sewers are not related," he says. "It's a floodplain, see, that's what's going on. They built on floodplain. The sewers have nothing to do with it."

Burrell says he never made disparaging remarks about Mexican-Americans: "I never said that, absolutely not. I get along with the Mexicans. I got a Mexican working for me. I do get complaints all the time about illegal conversions. I don't know if it's a subtle thing, I don't know if it's racism. I get the complaining calls from whites. What I do is send out this Mexican I have working for me to see if we can make these conversions legal."

Burrell says he probably won't be the area's alderman after the next redistricting: "I only inherited this area in 1993. I don't know where it will go in the next redistricting but I don't expect to have it. It will probably go Hispanic. It's already turning Mexican, and I can't service it as well as a Hispanic can."

But Belmont-Cragin's white and Hispanic residents aren't the only ones bitterly complaining about city services in response to the flood. Just down the road in Austin, which forms the heart of Burrell's ward, people are particularly upset that city health officials weren't dispatched to instruct residents about potential health hazards the sewer water could cause.

"I've been with SAC for three years and I can't think of anything that Sam Burrell has done for this community--he doesn't respond to his constituents," says Theresa Welch, an organizer with the South Austin Coalition Community Council, based in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. "In general, the city was very negligent. They didn't send out health crews to instruct us about health hazards. So many people let the water sit in their basement for weeks because they thought they needed to keep it there to show the [federal aid] people the extent of the damage. Now when we ask questions, the city tells us, 'Don't get people alarmed.' Well, give us basic information, so we know what's going on."

Many of the same complaints are heard in North Austin. "I don't think the city ever realized how devastating this flood was to our communities," says O'Quinn, who lives near the intersection of Cicero and Crystal. "Two people on our block died of electrocution during the flood when they touched their freezer in their flooded basement. The Fire Department laid their bodies in the backyard. They lay there uncovered for two hours until a neighbor put a sheet over them. They were there from nine at night until one in the morning. That experience was devastating to people around here."

Like residents in South Austin and Belmont-Cragin, O'Quinn says the city reacted far too slowly; it was only after people marched on City Hall that Daley and Edgar pushed hard for federal-relief funds, she says.

"We had this horrible dark water--black water, raw sewage--in our basements, and the officials acted like it was some little old rain puddle," says O'Quinn. "I mopped and bleached and mopped--I think we ran Clorox stock up we bought so much of it--and I don't think I'll ever get rid of the smell. You can't tell me there wasn't some health hazard. We have so many older people on our block still feeling the results. People are breaking out in rashes and having itching. I think there is a relation to the sewage in our basement. But the city hasn't sent out health experts to discuss this. They're leaving us alone."

One unexpected consequence of the flood is that it's brought together residents from Fullerton to Roosevelt Road, encompassing several large, diverse, and never-before-unified west-side neighborhoods. At least three community groups (the Northwest Austin Council, the South Austin Coalition Community Council, and the Northwest Neighborhood Federation) are jointly demanding that the city construct better sewers and investigate complaints of increased viral infections among children whose homes were flooded.

"I think this is a political problem," says O'Quinn. "We have low voter turnout and registration. And the city doesn't think they have to listen to us, even during a disaster. We'd better change that and change it soon." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Wayne Strnad, Edith Hidalgo photo by Robert Drea.

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