Historic September Flooding - Lessons Learned

Historic September Flooding – Lessons Learned
A series of heavy rain events, partially caused by the remnants of three tropical storms, produced serious and widespread flooding across northern Illinois and northwest Indiana in September.
The first heavy rain occurred on September 4 and 5 when remnants of hurricane Gustav brought two to four inches of rain to the region. Because of dry conditions through much of August, this rain didn’t cause any significant flooding. However, it saturated the ground, increased flows on area streams, and set the stage for more serious flooding later in the month. Moisture from a Pacific tropical storm, Lowell, moved along a stationary front producing a wave of heavy rain across northern Illinois and northwest Indiana on the 13th. This was followed by a second wave of heavy rain on the 14th, as the remnants of Hurricane Ike moved up from Texas. Rainfall totals on September 13 and 14 were 7 to 11 inches, with the heaviest totals in Lake and Porter Counties in northwest Indiana. The total September rainfall for the area was 12 to 16 inches.


The image shows rainfall across the entire Midwest from September 12-15, 2008.  This image is courtesy the Midwestern Regional Climate Center in Champaign, IL.

The result of the heavy rain was widespread flooding of roads, creeks, drainage areas, open fields, low lying areas and basements. Small streams such as the North Branch of the Chicago River, Salt Creek, the DuPage River, the Little Calumet River and its tributaries rapidly rose to record or near record levels. These small streams fed larger rivers including the Des Plaines, Fox, Kankakee, and Illinois Rivers. The Des Plaines reached the second highest crest on record at Des Plaines and Riverside, while the Illinois set records at Morris and LaSalle.  

Downtown Des Plaines. Photo courtesy CLTV.

Flooding in downtown Des Plaines. Photo courtesy of CLTV.

Flooding at O'Hare Airport

Flooding at O'Hare International Airport.


Despite two significant tornado outbreaks, on January 7 and June 7, and an intense wind and tornado event on August 4, the flooding of mid September was by far the biggest weather event in the Chicago area for 2008. This event impacted more people and resulted in more damage and fatalities than any event in this area in the last several years. Total estimated damages from the flooding are around 100 million dollars. There were four flood related fatalities, making this the most deadly storm-related weather event in northern Illinois and northwest Indiana since eight people were killed by a tornado in Utica in April, 2004.


Illinois River flood

Flooding on the Illinois River at Peru.

Historically, about half of all flood fatalities occur in vehicles, when people drive into flooded roads, or get swept off a road by fast moving water. While there were several incidents where people in vehicles were swept away by flood water and had to be rescued, none of the four fatalities in the September flooding occurred in vehicles. Hundreds of cars were also stranded in deep standing water, fortunately with no loss of life. Here is a review of the four fatalities;

·         A 28 year old man drowned in a retention pond in Arlington Heights.
·         An 83 year old man drowned in a flooded window well at his home in Oak Lawn.
·         A 48 year old man and 78 year old man drowned trying to save a boy in a flooded culvert in Chesterton, IN. The boy survived.
Our sympathies go out to the families.

Lessons learned;

·         Everyone should have a hazardous weather plan – at home, at work, and at school. The plan should encompass all hazards, not just tornadoes. Chicago area weather hazards include flooding, lightning, damaging wind and large hail, extremes of heat and cold, and winter storms. Make sure everyone in your care is familiar with the plan. Practice the plan by conducting periodic drills.
·         A key part of any hazardous weather plan is to have a reliable method of receiving watches, warnings and other weather information. One of the best methods is to use a NOAA Weather Radio. For more information click here; http://www.crh.noaa.gov/lot/?n=nwr
·         Heed warnings. A flash flood warning means heavy rain will lead to rapid flooding of roads, creeks, small streams, drainage areas, low lying areas, and basements. Stay home. Remove valuables from basements and flood-prone areas before the flood.  
·         Do not drive through flooded roads, especially if the water is flowing swiftly. Even heavy pickups and SUVs with four wheel drive can be swept away by fast moving water that is only one to two feet deep. Turn Around, Don’t Drown! For more information, visit http://tadd.weather.gov/
·         Do not let children play near flooded creeks, ditches, or drainage retention ponds. Fast moving water that is only ankle deep can sweep a child away. Victims can be pinned against grates or storm drains by powerful currents.
·         Do not swim, wade, or boat in flooded areas. In addition to the potential for drowning, flood water may be contaminated by oil from roadways, chemicals from farm fields, and backup from overflowing storm sewers. Sometimes flood swollen streams are tempting to adventurers in canoes and kayaks, but these streams can be extremely dangerous.
·         Do not venture into flooded basements unless power to the building is shut off. There may be an electrical hazard.


Illinois River flooding 

Record flooding along the Illinois River at Morris.  Photo by Don Lyon.

Finally, the National Weather Service would like to thank everyone involved in the flood event.
·         Volunteer weather spotters, amateur radio operators, Cooperative observers, and other volunteers who measure and report rainfall and storm reports.
·         State, county, and local government agencies including emergency management, police, fire, and public works/highway departments.
·         Partners in the broadcast media, who help disseminate the watches and warnings and keep the public informed.
·         Print media, whose news stories provide much of the information that goes into the final StormData publication.
·         School administrators who insist on developing sensible, comprehensive hazardous weather plans and conduct periodic drills.
·         People who head the warnings and encourage family, neighbors, and coworkers to also take precautions
Have a happy and SAFE holiday season, and rest assured that the men and women at your National Weather Service office in Romeoville are on guard 24/7, watching out for you.
The National Weather Service office in Romeoville has completed the StormData summary of the September flooding in northern Illinois and northwest Indiana. StormData is a monthly publication that documents all hazardous weather occurrences. It is available online at http://www.crh.noaa.gov/lot/?n=stormdata.

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