The flood of Sept. 12-14, 2008 isn’t just history to the thousands of people from Northwest Indiana and south suburban Illinois who experienced what one meteorologist calls “the perfect storm” of weather patterns.
Four years later, many in the Calumet Region live on high-alert anytime it rains, and others are still enduring the effects of that flood in terms of their health, their finances and their homes, said Dan Repay, executive director of the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission.
It all started with a rain storm on Sept. 10.
WHERE WE WERE
Between Sept. 12 and 14, the remnants of Hurricane Ike roared up from the Gulf of Mexico to join the debris from Pacific Tropical Storm Lowell and a cold front with three days of soaking rain from the west.
That phenomenon resulted in nine inches of rain within 24 hours and massive, historic flooding all along the Little Calumet River and its tributaries.
• Flooding cost $88 million.
• The Borman Expressway was closed for a week, impacting commerce.
• Flooding invaded Porter County with much of the damage occurring across the northern part of the county and into parts of Valparaiso. Portage’s sewer treatment plant was damaged.
• At 11 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 14, 2008, Chesterton residents Mark Thanos, 48, and his father, John Thanos, 78, drowned attempting to rescue a 10-year-old boy from a rain-swollen tributary drainage ditch to Coffee Creek in the Westchester South subdivision. The boy survived.
• Overflow from the Little Calumet went into Calumet City, which has an earthen dike on its side of the river. Calumet City Mayor Michelle Markiewicz said, “We were right on top of it,” she said, adding she also remembers the 25 area fire departments that came to Calumet City’s aid, along with others who helped lay sandbags in an effort to try to hold back the river.
• Lansing received less flooding because the village has a concrete dike that held up to the water.
• The Lake Area Regional Recovery of Indiana started with United Ways of Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties and community groups gathering to help flood victims.
• LARRI’s initial $3.5 million grant was awarded in December 2008 through the Indiana Association of United Ways and the United Ways of Northwest Indiana.
• Two additional grants, totaling $11.2 million went to provide case management services for more than 3,600 families, 600 homes restored, five new homes built, and 26 families relocated to new homes, and in some cases, new communities.
THE LITTLE CALUMET FLOOD PROTECTION SYSTEM
The Little Calumet River Flood Protection System dates back 26 years.
In 1986, Congress approved the levee project to prevent flooding along the Little Calumet River in Lake County only, supervised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
It took until 1990 for the funding sources to be cobbled together. The LCRBDC was established to provide the required local funding match and to oversee operation and maintenance of the levee system.
Work began between Clark and Burr streets in Gary. Marshalltown, which lies east of that start point, was finally added.
By the time of the flood, much of that original work in Gary was in disrepair, because no maintenance had been done by the LCRBDC. In fact, the U.S. Army Corps has decertified that portion of the levee, deeming it not adequate to prevent flooding.
Flood protection installed in the 1980s along Hohman Avenue also wasn’t maintained.
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Construction was completed only to Kennedy Avenue by fall 2008. The final stages, from the Northcote Bridge to Hohman Avenue weren’t even on the drawing board.
This wasn’t the first time the Little Calumet River flooded, although it set the bar as the worst flood since the area was settled, Repay said.
Flooding from the Little Calumet and its tributaries has occurred every decade from the 1950s and damaged many areas including, sections of State Line and Forest Avenue, Hammond’s Woodmar neighborhood, the former Woodmar Country Club now Cabela’s, Munster’s Wicker Park Estates and the Woodland Estates area of Highland as well as Griffith and Gary.
FAST FORWARD TO NOW
In 2008, a new commission appointed by Gov. Mitch Daniels and led by William Baker of Munster took over as the levee project’s local partner to direct local efforts and to operate and maintain the structure they inherited.
Another new commission will be appointed by the governor this year. Baker, Anthony Broadnax, of Gary, and Tom Wichlinki, of Griffith, will complete their terms, and new members appointed by the governor were seated Sept. 12.
Colin Highlands, of Portage, is nonpoint water pollution coordinator with the Indiana Lake Michigan Coastal Program and represents the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
Thomas Gozdecki, of Highland, is senior vice president of Hyre Electric and fills the seat vacated by Dan Dernulc.
The new nine-member commission is stipulated in legislation Daniels signed on March 16 creating permanent funding source to operate and maintain Little Calumet River flood control levees in Lake County.
Next spring, property owners in the Little Calumet River and Burns Waterway watersheds will pay an additional per-parcel fee along with their first property tax bill.
The commission is able to prioritize the projects to be completed. Baker said the main goal of that planning is to help remove homes and businesses from the floodplain and reduce or eliminate the need for flood insurance.
The $250 million Little Calumet River Flood Control Project has taken 21 years to run less than 30 miles, but is now virtually complete although there are numerous steps yet to be finished, said Natalie Mills, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager.
Major renovations and repairs have been accomplished in Gary at Chase Street, Burr Street and in Marshalltown, Repay said.
Debris, ranging from bowling balls to shopping carts, have been removed from the river. Pumps at Burr Street have been repaired to help drain water from areas that continue to hold water.
The levee has been cleared and rehabbed in these areas.
“Twenty years of work (that should have been done) we’re trying to do in six months,” Repay said.
There have been other infrastructure changes since the Flood of 2008.
In Calumet City, there has been significant work done to reinforce the earthen dike.
Qualkinbush also said city officials now have people walk the length of the dike on a weekly basis to check for trees that might cause damage and for animals whose burrowing into the ground weaken the structure.
She also said some homes that were determined to be too close to the river have been cleared away for safety concerns.
In Porter County, the flood damage to the Portage sewage treatment plant was repaired and the city instituted a new stormwater fee to help pay for repairs and other projects.
The flood spurred a major series of stormwater projects in Valparaiso to prevent future flooding. Some have been completed. Others are still on the books.