The Chicago Floods: When Tragedy Hits Home

10/16/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We learn of tragedies every day. Plane crashes. Mudslides. Trains colliding. Hurricanes. But how often do we do more than shake our heads in disbelief? We generally just talk about it with friends and co-workers around the proverbial water cooler and, eventually, move on.

But for the people who are directly affected, the water cooler doesn't exist. They can't just share stories and move on. The tragedy sticks with them for weeks, months or possibly years depending how devastating it is. And unless you're connected to it somehow, it's easy to forget -- or at least just move on.

When the planes flew into the World Trade Center, it became real after learning that my partner's college roommate was on the plane that left out of Boston en route to San Francisco; it then became even more real when we realized that we were on the same flight 12 hours earlier, but made it home. When the tsunami devastated Indonesia, it was shocking at first, but turned to personal horror the day after when I learned that someone I knew was vacationing in Sri Lanka and was swept away while sleeping. He fortunately lived to tell his tale; his friend wasn't as lucky. This past weekend, Chicago was hit with record-breaking rainfall; apparently the most on record for any single day. The news reported road closures, CTA backups and flash flooding. The flow of the Chicago River was reversed to lower rising levels. But in some areas, it wasn't enough.

While watching the news Saturday night, I experienced that head-shaking moment of disbelief -- until the story homed in on the intersection of Argyle and Monticello in Albany Park, just south of where my friends' home sits along the north branch of the Chicago River. The news showed dozens of people fighting against rising water, removing personal belongings, sandbagging. The area looked like a war zone, with police and fire trucks blaring horns and flashing lights. I immediately contacted my friends and learned the devastating news. "We had to evacuate. We're OK, but our home isn't," the text read. "Our home is devastated. I don't know when we'll be able to live there again," the next told me, as I read in horror, the disbelief now being less about other people, but rather my people. It was at that moment I realized the few inches of water and raw sewage that came up into our unfinished basement was tolerable. Gross, but we could manage. Sure we'd lose some things in storage. But our house was safe and dry. Their house was ruined. And their lives wouldn't likely be normal for quite some time.

That night I saw a video clip from Fox News (unfortunately no longer active online) of my friend being interviewed, talking about the devastation. It was heartbreaking to hear her talk about it, knowing how much they love that house on the river that came with a canoe when they bought it a few years ago, and the uncertainty of what they'd find once they could safely go home.

Coincidentally, I knew another resident Fox interviewed. When I emailed her on Sunday, she said her house was OK, but she was distressed. She feared the river would eventually overtake their home. "No power, gas, etc. anymore and the river is getting higher and OF COURSE they won't sandbag everywhere," she wrote. "The workers have been standing around so much; I am shocked and disappointed. The city let this happen." This friend, Ellen Malloy -- a popular restaurant publicist in town -- became angry as the weekend progressed. She wrote me on Sunday that she felt the city workers weren't doing enough, that they stood around mounds of sand but weren't bagging it -- all the while the water kept rising. "[The] city didn't start bagging until Monticello was already flooded. Plus, they stood around. I was making my own sandbags, transporting them to my house thru water that was going over my rain boots, stacking them up and this huge group of men [was] standing around!"

News reports and official city press conferences tell one side of the story. Hearing first hand accounts from residents you learn a different side and start wondering how much people are being taken care of. Of course the city officials seem to be doing everything they can -- they have to oversee an emergency situation when thousands of residents need assistance. However, when our basement flooded and we smelled the sewage, we put in a call to 311 and sent in an online notice on the city's website to have someone come assess the flooding from the city's sewers, but no one came and we never heard back. So now we wait, like so many others. Do we just continue and say life goes on? In some cases, it's all we can do. For others, moving on, however, takes a lot longer. And when they do eventually go home, are they really going home? Or will they have to move on as well, to another place, and start rebuilding their lives? Fortunately the rain has stopped. But now the reality of cleaning up begins.