Snow melts, flood policy floats to surface

A record-breaking winter snowfall that is steadily melting has left many streets flooded and clogged gutters citywide. As warm weather arrives and spring rains begin, flooding could become a serious threat and cause expensive property damage.

Flood prevention is not the city’s most pressing concern, but it is one officials should start preparing for. Mayor Rahm Emanuel made an awkward overture during a Feb. 19 press conference, joking that the water commissioner should consult Noah to prepare for the next deluge. Although by definition no natural disaster is the city’s fault, Chicago could approach emergency response more efficiently by allocating resources to the most affected streets, mapping street flooding and requiring all Chicago tenants to purchase renter’s insurance.

Since December, nearly 69 inches of snow and rain have fallen in Chicago, making this the fiercest winter on record since 1978, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. The Chicago underground drainage system is filled completely and the Des Plaines tunnel is filled up to 78 percent, according to a Feb. 21 storm update from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. The city has been working on constructing reservoirs to contain rainwater overflow since the 1970s, but they are not set to be finished until 2029, leaving the current floodwater with nowhere to go, according to the MWRD.

Floods often affect students because many rent bottom-floor apartments in the city. Renters’ insurance should be a requirement in all lease agreements, particularly for garden and first-floor units because most young people cannot afford to shoulder any necessary renovation costs if damage occurs. Many young renters may not have purchased insurance before, so the details of how to do so need to be included in the Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance.

More than 55 percent of Chicagoans rent, but only 35 percent of renters have insurance, according to an August 2013 poll conducted by the Insurance Information Institute. Landlords do not require tenants to take out renter’s insurance, but it is irresponsible not to invest in the affordable precaution. The city is responsible for widespread prevention, but every individual needs to take caution as well.

The MWRD drafted changes in the stormwater management ordinance to prevent pollution in October 2013. As of May 1, development sites will be required to remove floodwater from surfaces that cannot absorb it. The ordinance also calls for more thorough floodplain mapping, which is overdue. The current Detailed Watershed Plan only identifies the general areas around rivers likely to flood. The city also needs to take sewer overflow into consideration for streets away from the river.

The MWRD’s new ordinance shows that thought is being put into how the city handles excess water, but other agencies need to take steps to assure that the entire city is prepared to prevent and efficiently handle potential damage. An open discussion about flood plans could help steer Chicago toward a better and safer response plan.