Prove your humanity

Cheryl Watson lives in the house where she grew up and doesn’t want to leave. But regular and relentless flooding, exacerbated by climate change, is destroying her home.

She lives in the Chatham neighborhood, a place long known as the jewel of Chicago’s South Side. Back in the 1950s, when Watson was a little girl, something about this place felt special to her; it was full of black-owned businesses and perfectly manicured lawns.

“Everyone knew each other for miles around. The churches were teeming with residents. All the kids played in the park together. So there was that greater family feeling,” Watson said.

But in a segregated city like Chicago, Chatham had to fight to get what it needed. Over the years, neighbors had lobbied the city for better schools and fixed-up streets.

Perhaps because everything was so hard won, people took a lot of pride in their homes. Before Watson’s dad passed away he asked her to keep the house in the family.

“So this is something I’d really, really like to hold on to for the rest of my life,” she said.

But holding on to her home may not be easy. The Chatham neighborhood is, in a way, in the middle of a climate change disaster. It’s not the kind of disaster you normally think of: There’s no huge event with TV cameras and Red Cross campaigns. It’s something less visible.

A different kind of disaster

Over the years, cities everywhere have paved over dirt and grass–added more parking lots, streets and sidewalks. That means when it rains, there are fewer permeable surfaces to absorb the rain. And since the water doesn’t have anywhere to go, it fills streets and seeps into people’s foundations.

This kind of flooding, often referred to as urban flooding, is increasing as the climate changes. And it will change. The National Climate Assessment said in the Midwest we can expect heavier rains, so much so that the City of Chicago’s Climate Action Plan singles out flooding as an issue the city is facing.

But Watson already knew all that–she can measure it by the water marks in her basement. They’ve gotten higher over time. Still, it was hard to connect it to climate change because it’s rarely thought of as something individuals in the Midwest see in daily life.

Urban flooding is an issue that can affect almost any neighborhood in Chicago, but it’s particularly pronounced in the area where Watson lives. The city gets more calls about flooding in Chatham and the surrounding South Side areas than anywhere else in the city. But Watson felt like she was alone–after all, this disaster was happening inside homes, away from public view.

Watson tried to talk to her neighbors about urban flooding. She signed up to be on the agenda of the local block club meeting. But when she showed up, arms full of pamphlets, she said everyone just had this deer-in-the-headlights look on their faces.

“It was kind of that look like, ‘Oh, she knows our secret,’” said Watson.

People were hesitant to talk, she said. They were scared that if word got out about flooding, their home value would drop.

It can also be embarrassing to talk about urban flooding because often it involves a big “ick factor.” Rainwater flows off the street and into the sewage system, where it gets mixed up with all kinds of nasty stuff. During a heavy rain, the sewage system can get overwhelmed and then sewage backs up into people’s homes.

A well-known secret

Lori Burns lives a few blocks away from Watson. She’s a bit younger and inherited her home from her grandparents. In 2008 there were back-to-back storms. Burns remembered seeing it pouring down and thinking she’d better get home. When she did, her house was filling with sewage.

“It’s all coming up through the toilet. Through drains in the floor in the laundry. And anywhere else there is access,” she said.

The smell was awful. Her college papers and childhood keepsakes was soaked in sewage water.

Burns has a very calm, matter-of-fact demeanor. She’s a problem solver and went right into action. She called up her brother for help, and together they spent days throwing furniture and clothing in the trash and scrubbing the whole place with bleach.

“I can’t even really describe it other than to say disgusted. And really angry. And really defeated,” Burns said.

Burns remembered going to a nearby Target and seeing all these people stocking up on mops and plastic gloves. People in the neighborhood bought hip waders–not to fish, but to go into their own homes. Burns remembered being in line to check out and realizing, ‘Oh, It’s not just me, this is a thing in Chatham.’

“And it’s like, wow, is this what we are looking at?” said Burns. “This is the future? That we are having these storms where there is more than two to three inches of rain that falls in an hour? And this is just going to be what happens?”

This is what climate change will look like for most of us. Not sudden or flashy. Not tsunamis or tidal waves, but the realization slowly creeping up, like water from a basement.

The gross gatherings

Over the next few years Burns started looking around for solutions. One night she landed on this website for flood proofing your home and found a flyer for something called “The Gross Gathering.”

The meeting was about flooding and all the gross things it could do to your home. It was hosted by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and took place on Chicago’s North Side.

There were few African Americans at the meeting, rather, people were from North Side areas like Albany Park. Burns noted that she was probably the only person there from Chatham–even though it’s in the most regularly flooded area in Chicago.

“I determined then, whatever they were getting, we were going to get,” Burns said.

A few weeks later she found out that the City of Chicago and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District were partnering to stop flooding issues in Albany Park.

“I was pissed,” she said.

Burns thought the Albany Park neighborhood deserved all the help it could get, but she was mad that Chatham wasn’t getting the same kind of attention.

A spokesperson said the city has updated pipes and infrastructure in Chatham. And comparing Albany Park and Chatham is unfair: Albany Park is near a river, which overflows its banks. So completely different problem than Chatham, which is low-lying and in a vulnerable place in the sewage system.

But Burns and her neighbors said if history is any lesson, they don’t believe that black neighborhoods will be first in line for help as the climate changes.

So Burns is taking things into her own hands.

Tackling flooding in Chatham

Burns got back in touch with the Center for Neighborhood Technology, the organization that held that meeting she attended.

Together they started working on flooding issues in Chatham. They gathered data and learned that the Chatham area had the highest number of flooding insurance claims in the city. That sounds like bad news, but it also was kind of affirming for Burns, because she now had tangible proof of what a big problem Chatham was facing.

Lori Burns has a plan to solve flooding in Chatham. Photo: Andrew Gill.

“We weren’t really understanding how endemic the problem was or how expansive,” she recalled. “There wasn’t this groundswell of activity to say, ‘Hey, this is ruining homes. Diminishing home values. And really demoralizing as a homeowner.’”

Armed with this information, Burns and CNT organized neighbors, people like Cheryl Watson, the woman at the start of this story.

CNT also helped Burns get a special back-up valve installed. These valves are expensive and a lot of people can’t afford them. But it’s a good fix for an individual home because it stops sewage from coming back through your pipes. Burns said it’s worked really well; she no longer gets nervous and rushes home during every storm.

But the sewage she is keeping out of her home–it didn’t disappear, it’s just flowing down the line, to her neighbors’ homes.

“Fine, you protect (your) home, but you are screwing your neighbor,” she said. “So it doesn’t solve the problem. It just solves the problem for me.”

There’s an obvious way people could handle this: they could move to another neighborhood. But not everyone has the cash to do that and it’s hard to sell a house with flooding problems. And, of course, many have ties to the neighborhood and don’t want to leave.

Besides, a lot of people are like Burns–they don’t like passing a problem down the line, making it someone else’s problem. They want it solved.

And so, as spring arrives with all its storms, Burns will be out there, knocking on doors and calling the city. She knows she can’t change the weather, but she can make sure Chatham is ready for it.


Heat of the Moment is a long-term project about climate change, led by WBEZ Chicago.