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Learning From Flood Disasters

Northern Illinois is no stranger to floods. Last year, several counties were declared federal disaster areas because of damage from rising waters. With spring right around the corner, some officials want to make sure they’re better prepared to deal with the situation, should there be more flooding this year and beyond.

In a room filled with city managers, mayors and public works officials, Paul Osman is preaching the gospel of flood management.

“There’s a lot of new technologies out there that are just being developed for floodplain awareness and outreach,” Osman said.

This expert works the room much like a pastor trying to get through to a congregation.  He offers many tips to those in attendance, such as enacting tougher restrictions for building along floodplains. Osman is the Floodplain Program Manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He was one of several speakers at a summit held yesterday in Ottawa.

A little over a year ago, many of the officials here were dealing with historic flooding along the Illinois River. Now, they want to ensure the damage isn’t as significant the next time area waterways begin to overflow.

Curt Spayer is the public works director for the village of North Utica, which saw much of its downtown under water last spring. He says he’s open to different perspectives about prevention and mitigation.

“I did a walk around with FEMA and IEMA when it happened, so I have a pretty decent idea on what their plans are. But we have a pretty good sized [crowd] here, so we can see what we can make out of it,” Spayer said.

The summit was hosted by State Senator Sue Rezin. The 38th District Republican says a number of goals were outlined for this meeting. But she says one of them is key.

“To start looking at the floodplain and management regionally, as opposed to town by town and district by district,” Rezin said.

Rezin says developing a comprehensive flood management plan for the region might serve as an easier way to secure state and federal grants.

Anthony Heddlesten is with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. With 12-percent of the state now sitting in a floodplain, he says it’s important for communities to become more aware of what could happen.

“It’s just knowing what your risks are if you live in the floodplain. Having sandbags available, having everyone trained on how their flood system works, and having evacuation plans if that be needed,” Heddlesten said.

And while some of the focus at the summit was on establishing tighter restrictions for building along floodplains, a popular state-run program continues for buying properties in flood-prone areas and turning them into green space.

Ron Davis is the hazard mitigation officer for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. He says there are some recent success stories, including the city of Ottawa, which eliminated damage spots in a part of town notorious for flooding.

“They purchased the last of those homes in the last year. Now, instead of having an area that’s flood prone and the city has to provide emergency services to, they have this park down there. And the next time it floods, they might have some sand to clean up, but that’s gonna be it,” Davis said.

Davis says some of the challenges with the program include helping cash-strapped communities find money to cover their end of the costs, and convincing people emotionally attached to their flood-prone homes to sell.

Whether it’s establishing new management plants, or buying properties in flood zones, officials here and in other parts of northern Illinois will keep trying to learn from past disasters.

In the meantime, they’ll be looking ahead to next week’s flood outlook from the National Weather Service, to try to get a sense of how bad things might get this spring.