Ten years after, Chicago looks back on fluke flood

August 11, 2010

Much water has flowed under the bridge since building owners in downtown Chicago suffered one of the odder urban calamities of the last century. Last month marked the little-noted 10th anniversary of the Great Chicago Flood, a bloodless economic "disaster" that has since been eclipsed nationally by an unfortunate series of much worse catastrophes, both natural and man-made.

On the morning of April 13, 1992, the Chicago River gushed into some 50 miles of underground freight tunnels beneath the city's downtown "Loop" area. More than 200 million gallons of river water quickly flooded the basements and sub-basements of some 300 buildings, including the Sears Tower and City Hall. At the Helmut Jahn-designed State of Illinois Center, fish were even spotted swimming in the lower lobby.

Hundreds of businesses closed, thousands went home early and even the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Board of Trade had to suspend trading.

As it turned out, a slow leak that apparently had been 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 Kinzie Street Bridge.

Six months earlier at the site, Great Lakes Dredge & Dock, Oak Brook, Ill., had installed new pile clusters for the city at the base of the bridge tender's house. Using a barge-mounted pile-driver, the firm had sunk 50-ft. wood piles into the floor of the river, unaware that the tunnels lay beneath. Great Lakes later produced site drawings from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that did not show the tunnels.

Accusations flew and within days, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley angrily fired seven city engineers whom he said knew or should have known of the freight tunnel's vulnerability. Meanwhile, Daley picked Kenny Construction Co., Wheeling, Ill., to lead the emergency response.

Kenny vice president of operations, John E. Kenny Jr., soon earned the nickname "Flood Stud" for his laconic, no-nonsense manner in steering the frantic initial effort to plug the hole. Kenny was aided by the Corps, which pumped out the tunnel system, and later Harza Engineering Co., Chicago, which helped design and install a network of bulkheads to seal off and contain future floods.

"We're much more aware of training our own people now in crisis management," says Kenny, now 54. Local owners such as Commonwealth Edison also have sent field managers to the training. As a firm, Kenny itself has thrived since the flood, capitalizing on the positive publicity to double its ranks to 300 employees.

For its part, Great Lakes 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 it by local merchants for an undisclosed sum. "Yes, we're still in business," laughs Dan Hussin, Great Lakes' vice president of business development.

The city, meanwhile, has paid out more than $50 million in related claims since 1992. "And 99% have now been settled," says a legal spokesman for the city.

As for the tunnels, themselves, "precautions are in place and it [the flood] could not happen again," says Brian Steele, a spokesman for the Chicago Dept. of Transportation. "But in light of (post-Sept. 11) security concerns, the city now is reluctant to discuss the freight tunnels in any detail," he adds.

         
 

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