Ten years after, Chicago Flood recalled

August 11, 2010

The 'disaster' that time forgot: Ten years after, Chicago looks back on bizarre downtown flood

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the Great Chicago Flood, an event that seemed cataclysmic at the time, but now, with the benefit of hindsight, resembles more of a harmless but expensive urban fluke.

Since the Chicago River flooded some 50 miles of underground freight tunnels beneath the city's downtown 'Loop' area in April 1992, the rest of the U.S. has experienced far worse trauma that has claimed thousands of lives and socked property owners and insurers with much greater financial loss. From the Mississippi River's Flood of the Century in 1993 to the Los Angeles Earthquake in 1994, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and last fall's unspeakable horrors at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the nation has seen more than its share of both natural and manmade horrors.

Despite dispersing some 200 million gallons of river water where it did not belong, the Chicago Flood doesn't quite rank with those disasters.

Indeed, no lives were lost and injuries were very few and none serious. Still, 'the city that works' didn't have to that day, and that ultimately is what most Chicagoans remember. Thousands went home early from work. Commuter trains leaving downtown were packed standing-room-only at mid-day and even the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Board of Trade had to suspend trading.

Hundreds of businesses had to close temporarily, many like retailer Marshall Field's with substantial damages to clothing and other seasonal merchandise stored below ground. In all, some 300 buildings were affected, from City Hall to the Sears Tower, where some 60 feet of water gathered in sub-basements. At the Helmut Jahn-designed State of Illinois Center, fish were actually spotted swimming in the lower lobby. In all, the river height itself dropped 2 feet.

Piles punched holes in river bed

Seven and a half feet tall and six feet wide, the turn-of-the-century tunnels had originally been used to transport coal in freight cars between downtown buildings. Later, they became conduit for cable lines and fiber-optic communications systems.

On the morning of April 13, 1992, a slow leak that apparently had been slowly growing since the summer before finally broke a 20-ft-wide hole into the roof of a tunnel some 20 feet below the river bed, and 50 feet below street level. Water then drained into the tunnel network and snaked all over downtown.

Six months earlier at the site, Great Lakes Dredge & Dock, Oak Brook, Ill., had installed new pile clusters at the base of the bridge tender's house on the Kinzie Street Bridge. It was part of a contract the firm had signed with the city to do the same job for five downtown bridges, ostensibly to protect and insulate the small operations cabins from wayward boat traffic.

Great Lakes barge-mounted pile-driver sunk 50-ft. wood piles into the floor of the river at the foot of the bridge, apparently unaware that the freight tunnels lay beneath. The firm later produced site drawings that it had received from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that did not show the tunnels and it also argued that city supervisors had personally approved of the pile-driving.

Goats and heroes

As crews scurried to stem the flow, accusations flew and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley angrily fired seven city engineers whom he said knew or should have known of the freight tunnel's vulnerability. City Transportation Commissioner John LaPlante and six others were dismissed. Supported by local engineering groups, LaPlante was widely viewed as a scapegoat and later landed on his feet at another local engineering firm.

In 1998, fired resident engineer James McTigue also was reinstated by an Illinois Appellate Court ruling that said the city should have taken less harsh disciplinary action short of dismissal for the first-time offense.

On the other end of the spectrum, local engineer John E. Kenny Jr., vice president of operations at Kenny Construction Co., Wheeling, Ill., emerged as the 'Flood Stud' for successfully leading emergency efforts to plug the hole in the river, aided by the Corps of Engineers, which pumped out the water. Later, Kenny and Harza Engineering Co., Chicago, were entrusted with designing and installing a system of bulkheads that could seal off and contain future floods if the tunnel walls again were ever breached.

'The public-private partnership worked well and the city did a wonderful job,' says Kenny, who became a celebrated figure locally 10 years ago and earned a number of prominent industry awards from national engineering groups. Now 54, he heads the family firm's building and power group. 'From the start, Mayor Daley saw the need to take somebody and to put them in charge. Somebody has to make the calls and be accountable,' Kenny explains.

Lessons learned, taught, implemented

Kenny was that person in the spring of 1992, but he was so impressed by the city's two-pronged approach of empowerment and accountability that he now teaches it as a part-time lecturer in crisis management at Northwestern University. Similarly, he makes sure not to leave those lessons in the classroom.

'We're much, much more aware of training our own people now in crisis management, too,' says Kenny, noting that local firms such as Commonwealth Edison have also sent field managers to train with the contractor's personnel. As a firm, Kenny itself also has thrived since the flood, capitalizing on the positive national attention to double its ranks from 150 to some 300 full-time personnel.

For its part, Great Lakes Dredge & Dock also is still standing, even thriving on the international stage. In 1996, it settled most of the flood-related lawsuits that had been filed against the contractor by local merchants for an undisclosed sum. 'Yes, we're still in business,' laughs Dan Hussin, Great Lakes' vice president of business development. 'As far as I know, all claims have been settled,' he adds.

For its part, the city has paid out more than $50 million in related claims since 1992. 'And 99 percent of all the claims have now been settled,' says a spokesman for the city corporation counsel.

Wiser, but tighter-lipped

Last week, Chicago Transportation Commissioner Miquel d'Escoto led a CLTV News camera crew down to the site of the historic breach inside the tunnel. He said on-camera that it would be highly unlikely that a flood like 1992's could ever happen again, given the precautions since taken and the safeguards now in place.

CDOT spokesman Brian Steele confirms this, but defers to security before divulging any more potentially sensitive information in the wake of Sept. 11. 'Let's just say precautions are in place and it [the flood] could not happen again,' says Steele. 'But in light of security concerns, the city now is reluctant to discuss the freight tunnels in any detail.'

Indeed, except for the brief CLTV spot and a five-line description in a Chicago Tribune 'This Day in History' column on April 13, the anniversary amazingly drew nary a mention locally of an event that many once thought would rival the Great Fire of 1871 and Mrs. O'Leary's clumsy cow in our collective memory.

But given the even harsher lessons that recent history has since taught us about human tragedy, this is one rare instance where the famously insecure 'Second City' is glad to take a backseat.

         
 

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