Snow, carried by frigid westerly winds, blew across the huge light towers that illuminated an army of workers and equipment battling to stay ahead of churning, rising river water and temperatures hovering in the teens.
Yellow, red, blue and white flashing lights mounted on trucks and emergency vehicles cast a gyrating glow over the major thoroughfare.
For about 90 minutes from late Wednesday night to early Thursday morning, men driving John Deere front loaders lifted and stacked massive concrete blocks, while public works crews from Hammond and Highland guided each 2,000-pound block into place across four lanes of street.
Hundreds of sandbags on flatbed semis, waited to be placed against both sides of those concrete blocks to keep back floodwaters from the Little Calumet River.
The coordinated action of people and machinery along Kennedy Avenue in Hammond and Highland was “a massive, well-planned practice drill," but it could have been the real thing, said Col. Frederic Drummond Jr., Chicago district commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
With the ground frozen, even a few inches of rain or water from melting snow would flow into the Little Calumet River through its tributaries and cause flooding, he said.
“You can’t wait for the flood to do this,” Drummond said. “When a certain threshold is met (with rising river water), you have to be ready. This practice is where you figure out the problems.”
Planned for months, the flood-fighting drill took extensive coordination between Dan Repay, the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission’s executive director; public works, street department and emergency personnel from Hammond and Highland; crews from the Indiana Department of Transportation; and the Army Corps of Engineers.
About 10 p.m., INDOT crews began closing two interchanges on the Borman Expressway on the west side of Kennedy. Highland’s Volunteers in Police Service personnel blocked Kennedy Avenue in both directions to all traffic several blocks south of the river, while Hammond emergency responders set up a roadblock just south of the McDonald’s restaurant parking lot to divert southbound traffic away from the drill site.
The north side of Kennedy from the traffic light near the Wendy’s restaurant and South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority was left open and emergency management crews directed vehicles through the practice site.
The 10 p.m. to nearly 3 a.m. time frame was chosen because it would have the least impact on traffic, while allowing emergency responders to practice in still-challenging conditions, Repay said.
“The snow added a nice effect,” said Repay as he watched Highland crews set up the huge concrete blocks. “See, the blocks are numbered where they go because Highland practiced this in the public works parking lot last month.”
Of the in-real-time drill, Highland Fire Chief Bill Timmer said, “The guys who do the work get their hands on it. We think like adults; we learn with our hands.”
This was the first time Hammond streets and public works employees used the concrete blocks for flood-fighting, said Gary Gleason, Hammond streets commissioner.
“We used to sandbag. Now we’re moving up in technology,” Gleason said. “Once we get the blocks in place, we’ll put visqueen (plastic sheeting) over it and then stack sandbags on the side where the water wouldn’t be.”
The 3-2-1 stacking of sandbags would redirect the water to flow west away from the expressway’s low points.
“These guys all pull together in a crisis,” Gleason said as he watched some crew members running between stations in the frigid air. “We’re all learning here.”
Before 3 a.m. Thursday, all evidence of the drill was gone. Those who fought this imaginary battle learned valuable lessons, Repay said, and those who travel Interstate 80/94 and Kennedy Avenue might never experience a repeat of 2008 because of those lessons.