Pontiac officials compare ’08 flood with 1982’s

John Faddoul

Comparisons between the current flooding in Pontiac and the one in December 1982 started being made as quickly as the 2008 waters overflowed the banks of the Vermilion and engulfed parts of the city. For three city-government veterans of both disasters, however, there are some significant differences, the fate of the South Side among them.

Alderman Frank Panno, City Administrator Robert Karls and Wastewater Superintendent David Sullivan were in those same positions in 1982 as they are today. They were interviewed Wednesday afternoon, and spoke about conditions as they were at that time.

"It appears it's a lot worse than in '82," Panno said. But one difference: In 1982 Rooks Creek and Turtle Creek came together south of town, sending water up Airport Road and into the south side of the city, including flooding the Vermillion Plaza parking lot.

Wednesday morning, Panno said, he made a number of stops on the south side of town and found a lot of basements not yet affected.

The river flooding is worse this year than in 1982, when the Vermilion crested at 144 inches above the Mill Street dam. It was 2 inches above that Wednesday afternoon. Sullivan noted that the current flood started upriver, in a Vermilion already high because of the recent snowmelt.

"You gotta keep in mind, we're kind of in a bowl" -- one with a river through the middle of it, Panno said about Pontiac's topography.

Monetary damage from this year's flood likely will be less than with the 1982 flood (in inflation-adjusted dollars) because of the South Side's being less affected, Karls estimated. Also, several properties were elevated after the '82 flood and some have since been torn down.

Karls was one of those South Side residents in 1982, living at the corner of Henry and Plum streets. That was also the time Niemann Foods was moving from Vermillion Plaza to its current location on Madison Street, and Karls stocked up on toilet paper and paper towels, putting them in basement of his house. During the flood, he remembers seeing them floating down the street.

Sullivan pointed out that in 1982 they had to sandbag the wastewater treatment plant, getting a lot of mutual-aid help from the Cornell Fire Department to do that. The plant still sustained considerable damage. In 1985 a complete floodwall, with concrete and earthen walls, was put in around the facility. Now, in conditions like the current ones, plant workers pump all the water that is processed at the plant over the floodwall.

"Our pumping stations are all operating in good shape," Sullivan said -- a difference from 1982, when the station in the Illini Subdivision failed. It was improved in 1990, and it and the other two main stations all have been rehabilitated since 1982.

In 1982, Karls was flooded out of his house, and from Friday through Sunday got about an hour or so of sleep each night, as he and others worked in the Emergency Operations Center in the basement of City Hall. "Sunday night," he remembered, "Mr. Panno came into the office and said 'Come on, you're going home with me. That was special."

In briefings with city department heads that began Tuesday, Karls said, Sullivan's "experience and feel for this whole situation has been invaluable." But a question that Sullivan knows he'll never know the answer to is what the flood of 2008 might have been like if the twin bridges at Heisner Island near 4-H park had not been built. One of their design features is to allow water to move quickly downriver. Had the old bridge remained, Sullivan wondered what the North Deerfield Road area would look like this week.

Sullivan also noted that the utilities in Pontiac are better prepared for floods now than in 1982. ComEd had three large generators available for backup power, and Nicor has updated to high-pressure lines.

One constant Karls cited for both floods "is the people of Pontiac pulling together in a crisis. That was the case in 1982, that's what we've seen the last two days. ... That's what's special about Pontiac."

Pontiac Daily News