TCR Talks: Saving homes from urban flooding

Harriet Festing

Harriet Festing, director of the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Water Program, preps residents with solutions for urban flooding, especially in neighborhoods where the high cost of repairs can lead homeowners to abandon their property. (Photo by Emily Jan)

When it rains, it pours. Not only from the sky, but also off roofs and pavement, through cracks and pores and into flooded homes and destroyed living spaces.

As the director of Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Water Program, Harriet Festing works with people affected by urban flooding, which affects at least one in six people in Cook County, according to CNT’s study “The Cost and Prevalence of Urban Flooding.”

While flooding affects all income groups, it has a bigger impact on lower-income families than others. In fact, “67 percent of the 27 ZIP codes with the highest concentrations of damage have below average household income for Cook County,” the study points out.

“For some, it’s a few inches, but for some, it destroys where they live,” Festing, 49, said. “People can’t afford to repair their homes, insure it or sell it. Many people are struggling financially anyway.”

Recently, Festing had followed a story in the Washington Post about maggots infesting the home of Chicago native Lori Burns as a result of urban flooding. To help Burns, the Water Program assessed her property and installed a backwater valve.

The Water Program has programs such as a property assessment service called Wetrofit and Rain Ready plans to find solutions to flooding and help residents organize for funding. It also conducts studies on urban flooding and works with legislators to introduce the Urban Flooding Awareness Act.

Currently, the Water Program is working with Chatham and Midlothian to help them develop Rain Ready plans. This is the first time they are working intensely with communities, as they collaborate with engineers, agencies and other partners.

The Chicago Reporter sat down with Festing to discuss urban flooding in Chicago.

Why is this important?
There has been an increase in heavy rain over the last 50 years, and it’s going to continue to rise. Impermeable surfaces, like roads and parking lots, are increasing. There is a lack of investment in water systems. We work a lot with people affected by flooding. For some, it has a devastating impact on their homes.

How can Chicago be more sustainable in this aspect?
By becoming Rain Ready. Many plans are specific to a neighborhood or street. We really need to do a community-needs assessment about what the needs are. People are often on the receiving end of other people’s flooding. Properties are flooding from runoff in the streets, private roofs and driveways. People pay for the mismanagement of storm water, and it’s deeply unfair. We need a fairer way of paying for it. That basically means everyone pays charges for the management of storm water. Native planting is a good way of capturing runoffs. So are rain gardens.

What urban flooding problems have you seen firsthand?
Last month, I was in Midlothian. There were terrible flooding problems there. The water was up to the knee. I went to a home in Crestwood, and a man abandoned his home the following week. He couldn’t stand it any longer. I think probably what happens is some homes flood a little bit, but many don’t realize that some people’s homes flood chronically. There’s a sense of people being resigned to it. Actually, things can be done about this. In many cases, solutions are not so expensive.

How do issues of water, such as water infrastructure problems, leaking and urban flooding affect the poor?
Our research suggests that low income communities are disproportionately more highly affected. Meanwhile, they have fewer resources to tackle problems and are least organized in advocating to local leaders for investment in solutions. Some of the solutions property owners might have in store are solutions to push water to other people through backwater valves. If wealthier people are more likely to install such solutions because they have more money, more water is pushed on people who can’t afford these solutions.

How do they affect housing?
Mold is a big thing, and the foundation cracking. It can make a whole portion of your property unlivable and unsafe. There is also a mental health impact. If your home floods every single time it rains, you go into stress mode. People won’t leave their homes [when it rains] because they’re so anxious about flooding.

How can issues like urban flooding be prevented?
In some cases, property owners are flooding themselves. There is runoff from their roof or driveway entering their house. There are simple landscaping and plumbing solutions they can do. Some have enough room to create a rain garden. For Lori Burns, we used a backwater valve. Storm water was leaking into the central system and backing up into the basement. Once it’s installed, it prevents water from backing up. For more severe flooding, you can elevate and raise the property, put floodwalls around the property and raise the stairwell. They can also use permeable paving. Instead of channeling water into the home, water absorbs into the pavement.

Is there a difference in how water issues are handled throughout the city in different neighborhoods? How can this be improved?
Most of the solutions are gray infrastructure solutions. Pipes are handled by the city of Chicago. It’s just one part of the solutions that communities need. Some neighborhoods are better than others at advocating for solutions. I think advocacy is important, hence we’re encouraging people to set up residence action groups. When a new parking lot is built, when a new house is built, it changes everything. It’s an accumulation of a lot of little actions that add up to big actions. Many people don’t understand where water is coming from.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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