This is part three of an eight-article series by We are Water Evanston, a community-based participatory research project that explores our relationship with and concerns about water. For more information on this series, click here.
The cost of flooding in Evanston is too high to ignore. Flooding and storms caused approximately $6 million worth of damage along Evanston’s lakefront alone in 2019, and costs may continue to rise as episodes of heavy rainfall become increasingly frequent due to climate change. Beyond the economic costs, home flooding events can be devastating to priceless, irreplaceable objects like treasured family photos and wedding dresses.
This June, storms across Chicago dumped more than a month’s worth of rain in only a week, leading to flooding in basements, backyards, and streets well beyond the lakefront. With flooding events on the rise, it is crucial that Evanston implements long-term solutions.
Flooding concerns among Evanston residents
In order to understand Evanstonians’ flooding experiences, We Are Water Evanston, a community-based participatory research project, surveyed more than 750 residents and spoke in-depth with 75 residents last year.
Sixty percent of survey respondents were concerned about street flooding, with the greatest proportion living in the Sixth and Seventh wards. Nearly half of survey respondents were worried about basement flooding and about one-third worried about sewer backups.
As with many infrastructure challenges, Evanstonians were concerned about equity issues related to flooding. One Third Ward resident who teaches at a local elementary school said the Fifth Ward, Evanston’s historically Black neighborhood, is neglected during flooding events.
“When [the sewers] back up in the Fifth Ward, it’s like everyone else’s gets taken care of immediately,” she said. “The City is out clearing the grates and all that. And in the Fifth Ward, it’s not, and I’m concerned about the inequity of how we take care of it.”
Our survey results also showed that residents of the Fifth Ward were most likely to express concern about sewer backups and basement flooding as well as street flooding.
However, in our analysis of 311 calls made to the City between January 2014 and June 2021, Ninth Ward residents were most likely to call in issues related to street flooding, and Second Ward residents were most likely to call in issues related to basement flooding. This difference may be because not everyone reports flooding when it occurs.
During a focus group with members of Watershed Collective, a program within Citizens’ Greener Evanston, Richard Lanyon, former executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) and former chair of the Evanston Utilities Commission, stressed the importance of reporting flooding. “If you don’t report them [flooding events], it doesn’t become a matter of record,” Lanyon said. “The City may not make needed improvements to reduce the risk of future flooding.”
When residents do not report flooding, the City must rely on incomplete data across different Evanston neighborhoods. Outreach from City officials and public works staff could help inform residents of resources available during flooding events and the importance of reporting flooding. This outreach could also build confidence that the City will properly respond to flooding reports, so residents feel it is worthwhile to call 311.
Survey data reveal discrepancies between concerns about flooding and reported occurrences of flooding in Evanston, which could be due to lower rates of reporting in certain neighborhoods.
The impact of flooding in Evanston
Interviewees from all nine of Evanston’s wards and Skokie, including unhoused residents, shared a range of challenges they have faced as a result of flooding, especially property damage and damage to personal belongings.
One civic leader shared her family’s experience with losing personal items during a basement flooding incident: “I feel so bad. A lot of my pictures of my kids, my boys. I had a lot of pictures in the basement, and they’re gone.”
Many residents have also dealt with the buildup of mold in their homes after flooding incidents, with one young resident telling us their family had to remove drywall on one whole side of the house.
Mold growth isn’t just a nuisance for families. It can have significant health consequences as well. A 2007 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 21% of asthma cases can be connected to dampness and mold exposure in homes.
Many species of mosquitoes breed in standing water. When this water persists for days it can increase the risk of diseases such as West Nile Virus. Indeed, in July the North Shore Mosquito Abatement District (NSMAD) reported the first West Nile virus-positive mosquitoes this year in Evanston.
Furthermore, one unhoused Evanstonian who uses a motorized wheelchair said flooding is debilitating to those living with disabilities. “Sometimes the intersections or streets were completely impassable to me,” the resident said. “I’m in this wheelchair that rides this high off the ground going, oh my God, what am I gonna do? I can’t get through that.”
Causes of flooding in Evanston
According to experts, flooding in cities like Evanston is commonly caused by intense precipitation events that overwhelm the City’s drainage infrastructure.
Many of our interviewees drew the same connection between heavy rain and poor drainage, either because of the age of the system or because drains are often blocked by trash or leaves. For example, one Eighth Ward resident we spoke to was incredulous about trash: “When I see people throwing trash on the road, I’m like, there’s a trashcan right there, why didn’t you just put it in the trash? When you throw stuff on the road, it goes into the drainage and then it clogs up the whole place.”
Clogged drains are one piece of the puzzle in Evanston. However, paved surfaces, which prevent water from being absorbed into the ground, and local soil characteristics also contribute to flooding. “Most people don’t really realize how much of Evanston is a very clay soil that just doesn’t drain very well,” a Seventh Ward civic leader said.
What is the City doing about flooding?
As climate change and increasingly heavy rainfall threatens the Great Lakes region, it is crucial that Evanston residents and City officials continue to consider and advocate for flooding solutions.
Evanston hired a consultant in 2020 to complete a hydraulic and hydrologic assessment, which will provide further information on stormwater flow through the City, both on land and through the drainage system. This assessment will allow the City to determine potential avenues for addressing existing flooding and preparing for the future impacts of climate change.
Meanwhile, there is a range of solutions to address flooding, which we will cover in our next article in this Evanston RoundTable series on water.
We are Water Evanston is a collaboration between researchers at the Northwestern Center for Water Research and community water activists in the Watershed Collective, a subcommittee of Citizens’ Greener Evanston. This article is the third of an eight-part series where we share key findings and action items related to water in Evanston. Follow We are Water Evanston on Instagram (@wearewaterevanston) and Twitter (@waterevanston).