Austin flooding meeting drew a large and frustrated crowd on July 6. | Igor Studenkov

So many Austinites showed up to a July 6 community meeting on the consequences of the previous weekend’s flooding that the meeting room at the Northwest Austin Council building, 5730 W. Division St., quickly exceeded capacity, leaving half of the attendees standing outside. 

The council invited U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-7th) and Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), as well as representatives from Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) to answer residents’ questions and concerns, as well as to explain what the city and other governing bodies are doing to help the address the flooding. 

Word about the meeting quickly spread via word of mouth and Austin-related social media accounts. Many residents in attendance had little patience for presentations, complaining that their insurance companies denied their claims. Many of them also argued that Mayor Brandon Johnson should be doing more for his home community in a time of need and complained that the financial aid to the asylum-seekers from Central and South American countries should be used for flood relief instead. 

Officials in attendance urged the residents to report their flooding issues to the city via the 311 app, as well as contact all of their elected officials in order to give the city a better idea of the scale of the problem and to put pressure on the state and federal governments to declare Chicago a federal disaster area, which would allow Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding to flow into Austin. And while many residents agreed there should be some kind of organizing, there was no consensus about the next steps, which left many who spoke to Austin Weekly News frustrated.

According to the National Weather Service, during the weekend of July 2-3, Chicago received anywhere between 3 and 8 inches of rainfall, but the west and southwest sides of Chicago and the western suburbs bore the brunt of it, getting as much as 8 to 9 inches of water. MWRD reversed the flow of the Chicago River by the afternoon of July 2 to send some water into Lake Michigan – by which point, many basements were already flooded.

Many Austinites who flocked to the meeting complained about the impact of MWRD’s decision. Diana Horton showed Austin Weekly News the footage of her basement apartment after the flooding, with murky water coming up to her couch. She said that, while the water had since receded, most of her personal belongings, including family photos, were ruined, and she didn’t feel safe staying there.

“I have mold,” Horton said. “I lost every piece of furniture, everything in my apartment is gone, except clothes.”

She was one of the many Austinites who felt the city and MWRD weren’t responsive to their plight and wondered if the fact that they’re Black and live in a majority-Black community had something to do with it.

“We’re not deemed important,” Horton said. “I work, I pay taxes, I work every day, and it’s just not important. We have lost so much, and nobody cares, period.”

Several residents who spoke during the meeting went even further, accusing MWRD of letting the West Side flood to protect the North Side. In a press release issued in the immediate aftermath of the flood, MWRD insisted that it’s goal was to protect all lakefront areas, including majority-Black South Side communities.

“If we were to open the lock and gates too early, Lake Michigan would have a tsunami effect, overtaking the river and flooding everything in its path in downtown Chicago and along the waterways, totally decimating the riverwalk and municipalities downstream, on the South side and on the North side,” it stated. “The destruction that would be caused by opening the gates and lock too early is unimaginable.”

Kevin Fitzpatrick, the water district’s assistant engineering director, told reporters part-way through the meeting that the flooding happened because the existing infrastructure was overwhelmed, and it wasn’t a problem unique to Austin. He said that parts of the North Side of Chicago, as well as the 19th Ward on South Side, which includes the majority-white Beverly and Mt. Greenwood neighborhoods, had seen similar levels of flooding in the past.

“The reality is this is a natural disaster, and there’s no system in the world that can handle it,” Fitzpatrick said.

Many Austinites were frustrated because they heard there was an emergency declaration issued by in the Town of Cicero immediately south of Austin – a particularly sensitive issue for residents living in the Island neighborhood of Austin and immediately adjacent to Cicero. Cicero Town President Larry Dominick did declare a local state of emergency, describing it as a first step toward getting a state emergency declaration.

By the time Austin Weekly News arrived at the Northwest Austin Council building, there were already hundreds of people standing outside, with the staff only allowing a handful of people to walk in because they already exceeded capacity. While there was a large fan inside the meeting room, the sheer number of people made the air feel hot and humid. As one woman nearly fainted from heatstroke, the crowd called for the officials to take the meeting outside.

After some back and forth, Davis agreed to move the meeting to the area west of the building, on Massasoit Avenue. But officials struggled to make the microphones work and get the attendees’ attention. 

Davis urged the residents to have patience and keep on the pressure.

“We already asked the governor [J.B. Pritzker] if he would ask the president to declare an emergency, so that FEMA money can flow,” he said, adding that he would ask Johnson and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to pitch in.

“We’re not going to let up until we’re going to get some relief from the government agencies,” Davis said. “Federal government finds the money. We want somebody, anybody to get some flood relief.”

In response to complaints about insurance companies refusing to pay claims because their homes aren’t in the flood zone, Davis urged them to file complaints with the Illinois Department of Insurance, saying there’s no legitimate reason to deny their claims.

Mitts said that she was doing everything she could “to help all of us.” 

Community organizer Jitu Brown was among several residents who argued that the city should do more.

“We think what the City of Chicago can do is subsidize the clean-up of our basements,” he said. “The water keeps flowing.”

Brown suggested using Tax Increment Financing district funds for this. Under state law, TIF funding can be used for infrastructure improvements that reduce flooding, and the Chicago Tax Increment Financing — Neighborhood Improvement Program (TIF – NIP) already gives funding for home repairs, though only 30% of the grants can be used “for interior repairs that are health and safety related.”

As the meeting wrapped up, Khalil Muhammad, senior coordinator for Chicago’s emergency management agency, talked to many attendees one-on-one and answered questions. 

Social worker Toya Crain said that, while she was glad the meeting took place, she was disappointed that there was no clear follow-through.

“I wish people who organized this would state more clearly about how we can move past this,” she said. “We got a lot of unanswered questions; people are suffering, and we need to have the answers.”

Horton said she was trying to be “optimistic that everything will work out.” 

“My unit is uninhabitable and I’m displaced, basically,” she said. “I’ll gather my things, and I’ll just have to figure it out.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...