Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Chicago River Flood of 1992 May Give Some Idea of What New York City is Facing

The incredible video above showing a flooded New York City subway station gives at least a little bit of an indicator as to what the city is facing as it struggles to recover from Hurricane Sandy, and also puts the lie to the ridiculous initial media claims that the subway would be up and running "in a few days." So far, most of the media attention has been on the above ground damage the city has suffered, but the flood wall being overtopped last night and a tremendous amount of seawater inundating the subterranean portions of the city is going to have countless damaging effects that will be very costly and likely take a very long time to repair.

For me, it brings back memories of the great underground Chicago flood of 1992, which was not caused by a weather disaster, but human incompetence. I was still living in the city that year when some construction workers managed to pierce an underground wall holding back the Chicago River. As a result, the Loop was completely shut down during the middle of a workday and cleanup took many weeks to complete. I was part of the evacuation that day, and still remember days later walking by buildings that had hoses from water pumps running out into the street dumping the flood waters into the sewer system. It was one of the most surreal events that I've lived through.

Here's Wikipedia with a recap of what Chicago went through:

The water flooded into the basements of several Loop office buildings and retail stores and an underground shopping district. The city quickly evacuated the Loop and financial district in fear that electrical wires could short out. Electrical power and natural gas went down or were shut off as a precaution in much of the area. Trading at both the Chicago Board of Trade Building and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange ended in mid-morning as water seeped into their basements. At its height, some buildings had 40 feet (12 m) of water in their lower levels. However, at the street level there was no water to be seen, as it was all underground.

At first, the source of the water was unclear. WMAQ reporter Larry Langford, who was that station's overnight crime reporter and was known to cover all overnight police and fire activity for that station, reported that city crews were in the process of shutting down large water mains to see if the flow could be stopped.

Langford was monitoring police scanners and overheard security crews from Chicago's Merchandise Mart report that they had several feet of water in the basement and were seeing fish in the water. Langford drove to the Merchandise Mart, which is located near the Kinzie Street Bridge, and reported on WMAQ that he saw water swirling near a piling in a manner that resembled water going down the drain of a bathtub. The swirl had a generous amount of small debris spinning in it. His exact words on WMAQ were:

"I have found something very interesting in the Chicago River on the east side of the Kinzie Bridge. I see swirling water that looks like a giant drain ... I would say it looks like the source of the water could be the river itself, and I am hearing reports that fish are swimming in the basement of the Mart just feet from the swirl! I do not see any emergency crews near this spinning swirl, but I think they may want to take a look. In fact, I think someone should wake up the Mayor!"

Within minutes of that report hitting the airwaves, a battery of city trucks, police and fire vehicles converged on the bridge. Langford was the first to figure out the source of the leak.[citation needed] Langford retired from WMAQ in 2000 after that station converted to sports radio station WSCR and became the director of media affairs for the Chicago Fire Department.


It took three days before the flood was cleaned up enough to allow business to begin to resume and cost the city an estimated $1.95 billion. Some buildings remained closed for a few weeks. Parking was banned downtown during the cleanup and some subway routes were temporarily closed or rerouted.
And remember, Chicago was dealing with no above ground infrastructure damage and the water from the river was freshwater, not the far more corrosive seawater that has flooded Manhattan. Also note that the cost of the cleanup was nearly $2 billion. Extrapolate that number out and the initial media reports that Hurricane Sandy's damage will cost around $20 billion to repair look pretty laughable. Instead, it's likely to be many times that amount in New York City alone.


  1. The good news is that all the CHUDs are now dead.

  2. Three days? Who wrote this nonsense for Wiki? Someone apparently who used the archives of Kenny Construction. Kenny was the newly installed mayor's pal from Quigley Prep. He knew how to build garages. One car garages and two car garages. The mayor trusted him. The press made Kenny into The Mud Stud. He floundered for weeks as every civil engineer and structural engineer on the planet tried to scrape their jaw off the floor.

    The tunnels that flooded were originally built for tiny trains that ran deliveries to old downtown stores. The train hobbyists were down in the tunnels all the time. For train buffs the tunnels were paradise. They saw the leaks and warned the city for months. The mayors reported remark,before the roof fell in: "Why do I care about tunnels? Tunnels don't vote."

  3. Oh and those dioramas they used on channel 2 news to illustrate how the city was going to plug the hole with trash!!!