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Vickroy: Midlothian neighbors band together to fight flooding

Helen Lekavich displays posters photos taken during recent floods Midlothian. | DonnVickroy~Sun-Times Media

Helen Lekavich displays posters of photos taken during recent floods in Midlothian. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 1, 2014 7:10AM



Helen Lekavich and her Midlothian neighbors have lost another round in their ongoing battle against water.

Their hopes for a last-resort buyout of their property have been dashed. And so, for now, they will continue to live a life of panic and fear, of picking up and cleaning up, of repairing, replacing and rebuilding.

“When the forecast calls for 3 inches of rain, I set my alarm every two hours,” Lekavich said. “I live in fear of leaving this house.”

That’s because every time it rains steadily, the storm sewers near 149th and 147th streets and Kildare Avenue spill over. Nearby Natalie Creek overflows its banks. And the people living in the lowlands, a section of the village’s downtown district, brace for the deluge.

Adding to the trouble, Lekavich said, is overdevelopment in nearby Tinley Park and Oak Forest.

When too much surface area is covered with nonporous materials, as is the case with parking lots and buildings, or when water is purposely diverted from baseball and soccer fields into the creek, the excess has nowhere to go but downhill.

Lekavich and her neighbors live downhill.

The result has been disastrous flooding in April 2013, May 2011, January 2009 and twice during 2008. In all, there have been 15 devastating floods in the past 20 years, she said.

“It affects 12 houses on this block,” Lekavich said. “We get between 1 and 3 feet of water with every heavy rainfall. The whole block is engulfed.”

The residents have lost cars, furniture, appliances. They’ve rebuilt walls, repaired floors and ripped out carpeting. Lekavich has replaced her driveway several times, had her garage heaved and had a berm built around her basement walkout.

In the process, the hairstylist/massage therapist also has become a voice for urban flooding victims across the county, state and indeed the nation.

She advocates for legislation such as House Bill 4717, “The Urban Flooding Awareness Act,” which would require various agencies to report to the governor and General Assembly in June 2015 the costs and prevalence of urban flooding, as well as floodplain evaluation and strategies to expand flood insurance. Lekavich urges government bodies to be proactive rather than reactive about what has been deemed the “most prevalent urban disaster in America.”

And she fights tirelessly for relief for herself and her neighbors, some of whom have banded together and call themselves the Floodlothian Five.

Lekavich didn’t ask to become the boy with his finger in the dike.

“I am not an engineer. I am not an expert,” she said. “Yet here I am.”

Finding a solution has become a full-time endeavor. She documents damage, uploads data to websites and attends meeting after meeting in hopes of bending the right ear.

After last April’s massive statewide flooding, additional federal relief money became available. The village filed an application with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency for grant funding for property acquisition through the Federal Emergency Management Agency Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

It was denied.

The residents have appealed that decision but, said Ron Davis, state hazard mitigation officer, that likely will be denied as well.

Davis said the state has $29 million to give out; it received almost $250 million in requests.

“Our hazard mitigation grant funding is based on 15 percent of how much FEMA spends on disaster assistance to individuals and to governmental bodies and nonprofits as part of a federal disaster declaration,” Davis said.

So the more declared disasters, the greater the amount allocated to assistance and the larger that
15 percent portion will be.

Rick Hansen, superintendent of public works for Midlothian, said, “Unfortunately, it will take another severe flooding event to make additional money available through that program.”

But, he added, if that does happen, the village will reapply.

Limited funding is one reason the Midlothian project was declined. How the residents’ homes are flooding is another.

“Since the beginning of the hazard mitigation grant program 20 years ago, the state of Illinois has prioritized acquisitions of homes with first-floor flooding,” Davis said.

Most of the homes included in the Midlothian application have basements that flood before the water reaches the first floor.

“Experience has shown that unless a home is experiencing first-floor flooding at least every 15 years, it won’t meet this requirement,” he said.

Lekavich said, “Our basements are living space, taxable living space.”

The property acquisition grant, which essentially would buy the homeowners out at a cost of $1.5 million, was not the residents’ first choice, Lekavich said. They’d rather fix the problem by having an underground pipe installed. But at a cost of $62 million, Lekavich said, that essentially is a pipe dream.

“We’re at the point now where we just can’t afford to keep doing this,” she said.

Even a buyout would mean a loss to some of the residents. Some of the homeowners are ill and don’t want to move. Still, a buyout would be something, Lekavich said.

According to the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago nonprofit group that works toward creating sustainable cities, urban flooding affects one in six properties in Cook County. Over the past five years, the cost has been $773 million.

“Why not spend the dollars fixing what’s already here?” Lekavich said. “They just keep throwing money at cleanups instead of solutions — even though they know this will happen again and again.”

She has photographic evidence that the area her house sits in flooded long before any of the current houses were built. Yet, someone approved the building request.

She also has documents — files and files worth — of flooding events and cleanup efforts among her neighbors, some of whom have taken second and third mortgages to pay for the mess, all of whom have spent well into the thousands.

And yet, despite countless hours lost to rebuilding, documenting, investigating and appealing to government agencies for help, the water still is winning.

But Hansen said all is not lost.

The village is working with Cook County on a hazard mitigation plan.

“When that’s complete, it will get us in a better position to be able to accept grants through FEMA. That bodes well for future applications,” Hansen said.

Meanwhile, he said, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is set to begin a project called Phase 2, which will study Natalie Creek flooding.

“It will take some time, but hopefully that will alleviate some of the problem,” Hansen said. “It will be a positive for the residents of Midlothian and Oak Forest.”

Mayor Sharon Rybak said the village will not give up the fight to help these residents. In addition to seeking additional grant opportunities, the village is looking for volunteers to help fill sandbags that were donated by the IEMA.

“Every time it rains, I panic,” Rybak said. “I’m doing my best. If I had $62 million lying around, I could solve this problem. But I don’t.”

Meanwhile, Lekavich wrings her hands and waits.

“The stress of all this is unbelievable,” she said.

She does not live in a designated floodplain so does not qualify for flood insurance. Any attempt to sell the property would require full disclosure of the recurring problem.

One break in the ever-present storm clouds came last summer when a group of 45 students from colleges and universities across the country visited the area. The students, majoring in a variety of disciplines, were part of a three-day research project coordinated by Design for America, a nationwide network of interdisciplinary teams that use design to create local and social impact. It was founded at Northwestern University in 2009 and now has studios all over the country.

Each year, the students tackle a different issue. Last year it was flooding.

After a day of interviewing flooding experts, the students took to the field, chatting for about an hour with residents along 147th Street and Keeler Avenue.

Earlier this month, the students reconvened to announce their findings and ideas.

Sami Nerenberg, director of operations for DFA and a lecturer at Northwestern, said the March event brought together members from throughout the Chicago region who are affected by flooding.

“It was great to have individuals represented from all sectors ­— nonprofit, private sector, community organizers, government officials and students,” Nerenberg said. “There was some great dialogue that really helped to shed some new light on the issue.”

The students designed solutions focusing specifically on protecting belongings during basement flooding, she said.

With the assistance of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, the students came up with several ideas, including basement water sensors that could alert residents when flooding begins as well as collect and store data, appliance-saving bags and rugs and large, outdoor flood bags that could be attached to a home and collect excess water.

Lekavich, who attended the students’ presentation, called the ideas “awesome,” particularly the one that collects data. Having in-depth, centralized databanks would help everyone better understand the breadth of the problem. It also would provide evidence of recurring issues.

“The students came up with practical ways of helping us deal with this problem,” she said. “They, too, seem to understand that the real solution, either installing a pipe or tearing down the homes, is not going to happen.”



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