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Vickroy: Midlo residents hope college kids can solve ongoing flooding problems

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Updated: September 17, 2013 7:46AM



Helen Lekavich and many of her neighbors are living the American Nightmare.

The Midlothian residents, some of whom have banded together and call themselves the Floodlothian Five, have been deluged with water woes for years. Every time it rains steadily for more than a few hours, their lives become awash in panic.

They rush to their family rooms, their basements, their garages and begin the exhausting job of moving or elevating everything in sight.

That’s because their properties flood. And we’re not talking a few inches of water, we’re talking feet — sometimes up to four — gushing down their driveways, filling their basement walkouts and, yes, soaking the floors and furniture inside their homes.

Long, steady rains are the worst. The water fills nearby Natalie Creek, which overflows and gushes into their neighborhood. 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, rainwater has nowhere to go but downhill. Lekavich and her neighbors live downhill.

“It’s very frustrating,” Lekavich said. “I live in fear of the next big rain. I can’t go on vacation. I can’t leave for long, especially not if the forecast calls for rain.”

But on a bright, sunny Saturday morning, relief arrived in the form of a school bus full of bright, eager problem-solving students.

“This is an awesome opportunity,” said Saba Fazeli, a mechanical engineering major from Stanford University. “It’s a chance for us to apply our skills in a real-life setting. This is what engineers should be focusing on, making a difference in people’s lives.”

Fazeli was among 45 students from colleges and universities across the country participating in a three-day research project coordinated by Design for America, a nationwide network of interdisciplinary teams of students who 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. This year it was flooding.

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

“They’ll take this information back to the classroom and brainstorm possible solutions,” said Sami Nerenberg, director of operations for DFA and a lecturer at Northwestern.

“This is a learning experience for the students but we also hope to tell the story and provide some possible solutions,” Nerenberg said.

In October, with the assistance of the Center for Neighborhood Technologies, the students’ ideas will be presented at Northwestern, Nerenberg said.

Representing a variety of disciplines, from American studies to economics, the students surveyed the residents’ properties and asked lots of questions.

Hunter Roux, a mechanical engineering student at Duke University, said, “This is something we don’t get to do often in school. It’s incredible to be able to use what you learn in school to help real people.”

Like many of her neighbors, Lekavich has endured 15 years of the nightmare. Each time it floods, she replaces the damaged materials and tries to fend off the next attack.

“It’s everything you have and nowhere to put it,” she said.

She’s trucked in eight yards of dirt to help build up her back yard. She built a cement berm around her basement walkout. She keeps 8-foot tables in her garage so she can elevate everything quickly and easily when the rain starts. She also has invested thousands of dollars in a pump.

That’s on top of replacing the driveway several times, having the garage heaved and having the family room walls and floor replaced. And that’s on top of replacing cars that have been totaled by the onslaughts.

This past spring’s flood was particularly damaging. She is still cleaning up, and so far has amassed more than $22,000 in bills, with more tasks to come.

Lekavich’s property is owned by her mother, Jackie Hill, who lives in Flossmoor. Hill bought the house 25 years ago as an investment for her children.

“But now all of my retirement money is going into repairing and cleaning it up each time it floods,” she said.

Because the property is not considered to be on a floodplain, they don’t qualify for flood insurance. And because the homeowner doesn’t live in the house, they don’t qualify for FEMA’s low-cost cleanup loans.

“We can’t sell without disclosing the problem here. We’re stuck,” Lekavich said.

Ed and Marihelen Neu are in a similar fix. Marihelen’s brother owns the house that they live in on Keeler Avenue.

“It’s been flooding for years and each time it gets worse,” she said.

Both Lekavich and Neu say they’ve contacted village officials repeatedly over the past decade, always to no avail.

“We’ve gone to meetings, invited officials to come and see the damage,” Lekavich said. “We can’t get our village officials to even listen to our problems, let alone come out here and investigate.”

The most they do, she said, is drop off a pump at the corner when it looks like the rains will be continuous.

Trustee Jerry Gillis said flooding in Midlothian is hardly new.

“People used to call it ‘Mudlothian,’ ” he said.

But the severity of the situation south of 147th Street “just came to light recently,” he said.

He, too, blames overdevelopment in nearby towns, but said that Lekavich and her neighbors live in a very low-lying area.

“We are looking for a solution but it is not an easy fix,” Gillis said. “The storm sewers are maintained, they’re not in disarray. But they can only hold so much water.”

Rick Hansen, longtime director of public works, was unavailable for comment. Gillis said he was in classes all week to learn the process for applying for a Hazard Mitigation grant, which would essentially enable it to buy out some of the homeowners and level the properties.

Lekavich said not everyone wants to move, though.

“There are people here who for financial or health reasons just can’t move,” she said. “For some, a buyout would not work.”

She also said the first time anyone from public works came to her house was in July, to inform her about the Hazard Mitigation meeting.

Sharon Ryback became mayor in May. She says since then she has been looking into solutions to this particular problem. The village has applied for the Illinois Green Infrastructure grant several times but has yet to receive it. That money would enable it to install porous surfaces in parking lots and other places.

“We’re trying to accommodate these residents the best way we can. I can certainly appreciate the tragedy of their flooding,” Ryback aid.

A definite solution, she said, would be to install new drainage and reroute the water systems.

“But that would cost about $62 million. My small town of Midlothian doesn’t have $62 million,” she said.

Ryback said she will be interested to see what kinds of solutions the students come up with.

In addition to the students’ suggestions, Lekavich said the Floodlothian Five — which refers to the five homeowners in the neighborhood who are actively seeking a solution — also are putting stock in the Cook County Watershed Management Ordinance proposed by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

Its passage would abate the negative impacts of stormwater runoff by basically requiring new development and redevelopment that is upstream to adhere to stricter, “greener” standards.

Lekavich said many villages and businesses are not in favor of the new ordinance, because it would make new development more time-consuming or costly.

“Villages want more growth,” she said. “It means money. But we say, ‘What about us? What about how even more development would affect the people already here?’ ”



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