Residents complain about flooding during the July 6 community meeting organized by the Northwest Austin Council | Credit: Igor Studenkov/Staff Reporter

The Leaders Network, a collaborative of West Side faith and community leaders, is urging the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois to investigate the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago’s (MWRD) handling of the July 2-3 flooding, make sure all affected West Siders are compensated for the flood damage and work on longer-term solutions to make sure that, the next time the West Side faces this much rainfall, it won’t be as damaging.

Two weeks after the west and southwest sides of Chicago and the western suburbs got as much as 8 to 9 inches of water, the flood damage remains a pressing concern as the water created mold, damaged personal belongings and, in some cases, damaged boilers, leaving some households without hot water.

On July 11, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a disaster proclamation for all of Cook County and several downstate counties impacted by flooding, allowing state agencies to send resources to the affected areas. A state disaster declaration is a prerequisite to a federal disaster declaration, which could send Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding to the West Side.

Leaders Network heads said that, while they welcomed a state disaster declaration, they wanted to see more from the city and the state. They argued the city hasn’t shown as much urgency to help residents as it should have, and they were determined to make sure the city follows through on any promises it makes. The Leaders Network argued the city had to investigate the possibility that MWRD held off releasing water into Lake Michigan to spare the NASCAR street race happening near the lakefront at the time – a charge the district previously denied.

On July 2, MWRD didn’t reverse the flow of the Chicago River, sending some water into Lake Michigan, until that afternoon – by which point, many basements were already flooded. A number of Austin residents at public meetings and on social media said they felt that MWRD held off to spare downtown and the North Side neighborhoods. In a press release issued shortly after the flooding, the district insisted that it tried to avoid the “tsunami effect” that would damage all the lakeshore neighborhoods – including the majority-Black South Side neighborhoods.

Heads of the Leaders Network stopped short of saying they necessarily believed that – but they thought the possibility was worth investigating.

“We sent a letter to the Chicago City Council demanding an investigation, because many people were concerned that the West Side was sacrificed to save the NASCAR race,” said Rev. Ira Acree, Leaders Network co-chair.

“We simply want to know, as Chicagoans, what happened that day, why the decisions were made that day, and what led to the massive flooding,” said Leaders Network President David Cherry. “We need Chicago City Council to conduct hearings, and call people in, and call everybody, to have some [conversations].”

Cherry drew a contrast between “NASCAR racing through the streets” and “people on the West Side racing to save their lives.”

“People were swimming from the cars that were flooded in the viaducts, and they were in the race against time to get stuff out of their basements,” he said. “In some cases, they were trying to save elderly residents who were living in the basements.”

There is a precedent for the City Council holding hearings about government bodies that aren’t directly part of the city government, such as the Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago Park District and Chicago Public Schools district. The difference is that, while those bodies are governed by boards that are either wholly or partially appointed by Chicago mayors, the MWRD board of commissioners is elected by voters.

The Leaders Network dedicated its regular July 11 monthly meeting, which was held at the Columbus Park Refectory, 5701 W. Jackson Blvd., to addressing flooding issues. MWRD President Kari Steele, Illinois Sen. President Don Harmon (D-37th), and Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) attended. Acree said 240 people attended – nearly five times as many as the 50 people that usually show up.

“There were several testimonies, quite gut-wrenching testimonies about people losing [their belongings],” he said.

Acree described the meeting as “very tense and contentious,” and said that, at one point, Harmon stepped out of the room to call Pritzker to urge him to do something. The senate president heard back from Pritzker about the emergency declaration later during the meeting, which, Acree said, improved the mood considerably. But he and Cherry said the Leaders Network will keep an eye on the situation and try to make sure the residents get the aid they’re entitled to.

“One of the things we need to be vigilant about, is that there isn’t bureaucracy and red tape getting in the way of people who need it most,” Cherry said.

Pritzker’s disaster declaration explicitly waives some, but not all, state regulatory requirements that might slow down the process.

Leaders Network isn’t letting the city off the hook, either,

“Mayor Brandon Johnson should hold a vote in the city council regarding the release of some of the rainy-day fund money,” Acree said. “There’s [several] millions of dollars in the rainy-day fund, and what did we have in early July? A rainy day. It’s not rocket science.”

“We need all of our public officials, at the city, county and federal level to really show concern for the West Side,” Cherry said. “West Side residents are proud people who worked hard to obtain their homes, to beautify their homes, to make lives for themselves and their families, and [those] proud people right now need the support from the elected officials. It is critical that our public officials have utmost regard and urgency and give support for the West Side residents. This flooding took place on July 2, that was 12 days ago [as of July 14], and the fact that people are trying to get help after 12 days, two weeks, that is unacceptable.”

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...