Youth in Edgewater have mixed concerns on rising tides

By Nicole Girten
Medill Reports

Massive waves as high as 23 feet crashed on Kathy Osterman beach in Edgewater when a powerful storm hit Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood the morning of Jan. 11. A red flag banning swimming billowed in 55 mph winds as storm surges reached two feet. Local Alderman Harry Osterman sent a mass email to his constituents soon after warning them to stay away from the lakefront.

“I was very concerned that someone would be injured due to the waves,” Osterman said in an interview recalling the day.

Emma Beier, a senior at Latin School of Chicago, said she remembered driving down Lakeshore Drive that morning for a college interview with Princeton University. When she drove past North Avenue Beach with her parents, she saw the waves spilling onto the bike path.

“The water was just coming over,” Beier said. “It was really scary.”

Beier said her parents won’t let her run near the lake anymore.

Younger people today are more environmentally more aware than generations before it, and more of them like Beier express anxiety about the future. But in Edgewater, one of the few Chicago communities that directly borders Lake Michigan, she is in the minority.

On a Thursday night in January soon after the storm, Beier was among a small group of student representatives who attended the Edgewater Youth Advisory Council, a group formed by Ald. Harry Osterman. But there was little conversation about local issues and more emphasis on planning the next teen event.

Jose Ramirez, a junior at Northtown Academy who works at a youth-run café in Edgewater, said that he couldn’t ride his bike in this community without getting wet, but he said that he wasn’t sufficiently informed to offer an opinion on the local government response to the rising lake waters. “I haven’t looked into that,” he said, adding that he hadn’t even realized how big the storm had been.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for measuring the water levels in the Great Lakes, released data that said that the connected lakes Michigan and Huron have risen six feet since 2013 and estimated the water level will continue to rise in 2020.

Experts have been reluctant to directly attribute the water level rise to climate change. However, scientists have said that the higher water temperatures are causing less ice to form on the lake, leading to increased water evaporation in winter. This excess evaporated water translates into more severe storms, which have increased flooding and lake runoff. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2019 was the second wettest year recorded in the U.S.

“With a gentle rain, much of that soaks into the ground,” Thomas Murphy, a professor emeritus at DePaul University, said. “Whereas, an intense storm, it doesn’t have time to soak in, so it runs off [into the lake].”

Some young people in Edgewater expressed anxiety about inheriting this issue.

“I know a lot of people who live in high rises on the lake,” said Abbey Cavitt, a high school jurnior who also is a member of the Edgewater Youth Advisory Council. “Those buildings might not be there forever.”

David Pavletic, a high school senior who is also an executive board member of the environmental group Chicago Youth Alliance for Climate Action, said he was disappointed that generations before him hadn’t tried to solve the issue.

“I really do think we have a chance to fight climate change if we do something now,” Pavletic said, adding that he was still hopeful about the future.

Beier, the high school senior, said inheriting the issue of climate change was a lot of responsibility.

“I think it’s really incredible that our generation has the power to change the world,” Beier said. “But it’s also a little intimidating as well.”

Jose Ramirez makes a cappuccino while working at the youth-run Helix Cafe in Edgewater. Ramirez said, “I see where people like to mention that there are high levels of water in Edgewater, it’s kind of ironic,” playing off the community’s name. (Nicole Girten/MEDILL)