Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=215382
Story Retrieval Date: 4/23/2014 2:43:45 AM CST

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Carrie Eidson/ MEDILL

In Albany Park, the river provides scenic views for walks but increases the risk of flood damage to properties.


Wetrofit offers free audits and green ways to prevent repeat flooding

by Carrie Eidson
Feb 07, 2013


Related Links

Center for Neighborhood Technology

How to Participate in Wetrofit

Eligibility: Property owners in Albany Park, North Park, Rogers Park and Willmette

The Next Step: Fill out the "Household Flooding Survey" at CNT.Org

For more information, contact Ryan Wilson, (773) 328-7014 or rwilson@cnt.org


Flood damage can be devastating. The resulting mold and mildew can lead to health problems such as allergies, asthma and lung disease. Sentimental treasures stored in basements may be lost forever and the dank spaces left after the water recedes may attract cockroaches and other pests. Sewage overflow can bring foul smells, as well as bacteria, viruses and other toxins into homes and businesses, and that overflow can contaminate water systems that go throughout the city.

All told, the destruction from flooding can cost homeowners thousands of dollars, bankrupt businesses and afflict entire neighborhoods.

But a new initiative from the Center for Neighborhood Technology seeks to help property owners in areas most threatened by flooding find personalized, low-cost solutions, such as rain barrels and rain gardens, to prevent damage to their homes and the city’s water system,.

“[Green infrastructures] are a little more flexible,” said Ryan Wilson, manager of Wetrofit and other stormwater programs at CNT. “By being above ground and open, like a river, they can hold an increasing amount of water.”

Wetrofit is still in the pilot phase, but the initiative seeks to identify neighborhoods in and around Chicago that are most susceptible to flooding, visit properties in those areas experiencing repeat flood damage, and look for solutions.

“We would be doing targeted outreach to homeowners, business owners, private property owners to engage them on their property,” Wilson said. “We conduct an audit of what flooding they’ve experienced, what flooding they might be at risk for, and recommend flood prevention techniques on their property.”

So far, Wetrofit is available in Wilmette, Rogers Park, Albany Park and North Park, where Wilson estimates 65 to 70 audits were done last year. However, Wilson says the program plans to expand in 2013, as CNT identifies other areas of the city and suburbs suffering from flood damage.

Wilson said there is no cost for the audit, though the cost of installing a rain garden or other green improvements must be provided by the property owner. While the price will vary site to site, Wilson said these costs are generally minimal and CNT does partner with several nurseries that offer discounts. Cost depends in part on the size of the garden and types of plants the property owner selects.

“The cost in damages can be very high in these frequent flooding events in neighborhoods and basements,” Wilson said. “We anticipate the investment we recommend would be significantly under the [amount of] damages that may occur.”

Wilson said many flood insurance riders cover $5,000 or $10,000 in damages, but this is often not enough to cover the total cost of damages, especially if flooding reoccurs.

Installing a rain garden is not a difficult process, says Emma Carollo, volunteer coordinator at the Albany Park Community Center, who worked with CNT and community volunteers to install a garden at the organization’s Kimball Avenue location.

“I think it’s something people can learn to do on their own,” Carollo said. “We took direction from CNT on organization and labor, but volunteers made decisions after that. I think it was easy for our volunteers to do.”

For those who want more assistance in the installation process, Wilson said several landscaping companies offer service in these communities. Furthermore, CNT predicts programs such as Wetrofit may boost the number of jobs available in the landscaping industry, as more businesses begin offering green infrastructure installation.

John Quail, the director of watershed planning at Friends of the Chicago River, said initiatives like Wetrofit are successful in reducing the amount of water flowing into the city’s sewers and the amount of water coming back up, seeping into people’s basements and the Chicago River.

“When you put water into rain barrels and rain gardens, there’s more capacity in the [drainage] system. It can have an impact by keeping that water out of the pipes,” Quail said. “You’re re-creating how water drainage would happen in nature.”

Quail said homes built before 1950 are most susceptible to overflow, as they are more likely to have combined sewer systems, where sewage from homes and stormwater runoff all drain through one pipe.

Both Wilson and Quail cautioned that green infrastructures may not solve flooding problems for all properties, especially in communities such as Albany Park and North Park, where close proximity to the river leaves vulnerability to large-scale flood events. Quail said such flooding events are occurring with higher frequency and intensity due to climate change.

In other neighborhoods, the flooding could be a result of bad pipes on the property or a problem in neighboring properties. Wilson said CNT auditors will be able to determine if a property can be helped by Wetrofit.