CHICAGO — Sewage gushed up Lori Burns’s toilet. It swept the floor. It wrecked the water heater, the deep freezer, her mother’s wedding veil.
This basement invasion was the third in five years. Burns, 40, could no longer afford to pay a cleanup crew. So she slipped on polka dotted rain boots, waded into the muck, wrenched out the stand-pipe and watched the brown water drain.
The South Side native, a marketing specialist, estimated damages at $17,000. And that did not include what she could not replace: the family heirlooms, the oriental rugs, her cashmere sweaters. The bungalow had flooded four times from 1985 to 2006, when her parents owned it. Lately, it flooded every other year. Burns felt nature was working against her. In a way, it was.
As Washington still fights over whether or not climate change is real, people across the country are already paying costs scientists ascribe to it — sometimes in unexpected places. You might think about climate change in terms of rising sea levels threatening coastal cities. But all over the Midwest, from Chicago to Indianapolis and Milwaukee, residents face just as many difficult issues as changing weather patterns collide with aging infrastructure. The costs — for governments, insurance companies and homeowners — are measured not only in dollars, but in quality of life.
In Chicago over the past century, downpours that force human waste up pipes and into homes — storms that dump at least 1.5 inches of rain in a single day — have struck the city more often. Annual precipitation in the Midwest grew about 20 percent during the past century. Rains of more than 2.5 inches a day are expected to increase another 50 percent in the next 20 years. That means more flooding — and more clean-up costs for people like Burns.
As the April rain poured, she texted her brother: How much bleach do you have?
On came the snowsuits, goggles and face masks. They dumped bleach on the floor, mopped and reminisced about what they had survived in this basement: a midnight home intruder, the occasional pop-pop of neighborhood gunfire, their parents’ divorce. Here they played Monopoly and watched “The Cosby Show” and learned the truth about Santa Claus.
Soon the silt, as Burns euphemistically called it, was gone. Fans would dry the dampness. The worst was over, it seemed.
Then came the maggots.
In May, a year after sewage swamped Burns’s basement, an insurance giant took to an Illinois courtroom for what might have been a publicity stunt, or what might be a preview of a nationwide battle over who foots the bill for extreme weather events linked to climate change. Farmer’s Insurance Co. sued the city of Chicago for failing to prepare for the effects of global warming.
The city “should have known,” the lawsuit alleged, “that climate change in Cook County has resulted in greater rainfall volume … than pre-1970 rainfall history evidenced.” The storms are not an act of God, the suit claimed, but a carbon-driven reality outlined in Chicago’s own Climate Action Plan, published in 2010.
Last April, sewage water flooded roughly 600 Chicago buildings, according to the lawsuit: “Geysers of sewer water shot out from the floor drains, toilets, showers. … Elderly men and women and young children were forced to evacuate.” That could have been prevented, the company claimed, if Chicago would have remedied an underground storm-water storage that has become, over time, “obsolete.”
“Farmers has taken what we believe is the necessary action to recover payments made on behalf of our customers,” spokesman Trent Frager said in a statement, “for damages caused by what we believe to be a completely preventable issue.”
Two months later, the company dropped the suit — “We hoped that by filing … we would encourage cities and counties to take preventative steps,” Frager said — but not before raising issues that are sure to return to the courts if current climate trends persist.
“The debate we have entered now is: Why does it seem more and more disasters are happening?” said Erwann Michel-Kerjan, executive director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “And, as a nation, who’s supposed to pay for them?”
The National Climate Assessment, released by the Obama administration in May, predicts that the “frequency and intensity” of the Midwest’s heaviest downpours will more than double over the next hundred years. A handful of heavy spring and summer storms, the kind that flood homes, can supply 40 percent of the region’s annual rainfall, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
If weather patterns follow projections, that means trouble for aging urban infrastructures and the cities, like Chicago, that rely on them: “Designs are based upon historical patterns of precipitation and stream flow,” the climate assessment says, “which are no longer appropriate guides.”
The link between climate and flooding in Chicago, however, can’t be summarized with, It’s warmer out, so this storm happened. Inherent uncertainties in science make it difficult to disentangle just what forces play Rainmaker.
“The debate we have entered now is: Why does it seem more and more disasters are happening? And, as a nation, who’s supposed to pay for them?”
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which calls itself the world’s largest non-government group science advocacy group, released a report this year called “What We Know,” which offers a nuanced look at climate change and its effects. The report concludes that natural disasters, like floods, are striking harder and more often. But, beyond anecdotes and weather projections, it adds, it’s hard to link one specific flood to carbon emissions.
“Greenhouse gases have supercharged the climate, just as steroids supercharged hitting in Major League Baseball,” the report says. “Over the course of a baseball season in the steroid era, we witnessed more — and longer — home runs, even though we cannot attribute any specific homer to steroids. Similarly, even though we cannot attribute any particular weather event to climate change, some types of extreme events … are now more frequent.”
Increased storm frequency is particularly problematic in Chicago, where the sewer system was designed to absorb rain nearly 120 years ago. The city’s storm water systems were built on the assumption that the biggest storms happen only once each decade, at a time when the population was much smaller, said Robert Moore, who leads a climate preparation team at the Natural Resources Defense Council in downtown Chicago. “Climate change will only amplify an existing issue.”
The combined sewer system overflows when an inch of rain soaks the city, directing waste into the Chicago River. If more than 1.5 inches of rain fall city-wide in a day, Moore said, it floods basements across town, disrupting lives and bank accounts.
District engineers agree the problem is serious, and they’re building heavily to address it. They’ve seen the data and the changing weather patterns, but don’t think it suggests any particular cause. They don’t blame a man-made Apocalypse.
“Climate change is a political term,” said David St. Pierre, head of Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.“But you can’t ignore that our weather has changed drastically in the past five years.”
The city’s underground storm and wastewater storage can now hold about 2.7 billion gallons of overflow. By 2015, storage should total 7.5 billion gallons, St. Pierre said. By 2029, 17.5 billion gallons.
“I don’t see any overflows happening when that’s done,” he said. “We’re getting this under control, maybe more than any other city in the U.S.”
Over the next five years, Chicago will spend $50 million on flood prevention, putting green touches on capital infrastructure projects. One example: Workers will add French drains to a highway while repaving it, said Karen Hobbs, an environmental policy analyst who helped author Chicago’s Climate Action Plan. More rain barrels, permeable alleys and trees will sprout around the city. The goal, Hobbs said: Find natural ways to reduce storm runoff by 250 million gallons.
A week after the April flood, Burns pulled up to her house. She had been staying at her grandparents’ house two miles down the street with only her spring clothes, toiletries and her mother’s favorite quilt.
She didn’t want to get comfortable. There was too much to do. She applied for a $15,000 loan from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, one intended for small businesses, to fix the old house. She would replace the appliances and plant a water-absorbent garden in the backyard with rain barrels and a winding gravel path.
Burns bought her family’s Calumet Heights bungalow in 2007 after her mother, Dorothy, died of breast cancer. She wanted to keep it in the family, away from absentee landlords who might rent it cheap to gang bangers.“Nothing gets done,” she tells neighbors, “if all the responsible homeowners get up and leave.” In an old office cabinet, she unearthed a rainbow watercolor from her fifth grade art class. It would look nice on the basement wall — a symbol bridging old and new.
Burns stepped inside. The rotten egg smell was gone, thanks to the bleach. She and her brother had scrubbed the floor with four whole containers. She noticed horse flies, though. Fat, sluggish horse flies. She wondered why they flew so slowly, in big loops. She worried: Did I forget to take the garbage out?
Burns put her hand on the basement door.
What’s that buzzing?
She turned the knob and stepped away, clutching her stomach.
“It was like a scene from Amityville horror,” she told friends. “I couldn’t see past the staircase!”
Burns ran to her laptop and Googled until she found an explanation: Sewage brought hundreds of eggs up the drains. They hatched into maggots. They grew into flies.
Never again, she vowed.
Burns joined an urban flooding support group and task force. She wrote to the city, spoke up at council meetings: “What are we supposed to do on the South Side? What are old or poor or sick people supposed to do? Surely not be forced out of their homes every year …”
She learned the easiest way to exterminate sewage offspring was also the cheapest: Just let the flies die. There was no more waste, no more food in the basement. Soon, winged corpses filled her dust pan.
She met a plumber who sold flood control systems for $2,000, well below the average cost of $10,000. On a mid-June afternoon, more than a year after the waste flood, Burns watched him dig a hole outside her bungalow. If it worked, the front-yard tank would collect future storm overflow before it surged up her pipes.
“I’m going to plant nothing but flowers all over this,” she said, “like a happy grave.”
It was the first big step toward moving back. She still lived at her grandparents’ house, chipping away at her to-do list on weekends. She still needed to paint the walls, lay new tile on the floor, find storage for heirlooms the floods never touched. Her FEMA loan would cover most of it.
Burns can’t stop the rain or control how much falls. But she will defend her slice of earth, however it changes.