Bulldozer

When Dennis Hastert made his stupid remarks about rebuilding New Orleans (or not) after Katrina, many bloggers rightly jumped on him and he quickly backed off. And--perhaps because Hastert seems like a big harmless dummy, perhaps because few in the blogosphere know anything about his hometown, perhaps because there were so many other things to blog about regarding Katrina--the story faded.

But I think it’s worth noting that Denny is from Yorkville, Illinois, a town just down the Route 34 from where I live now and just down the river from the town I grew up in. What’s that? Yes, Yorkville, like New Orleans, is a river town, built on the banks of the Fox River, which runs from Wisconsin down to Ottawa, where it dumps into the Illinois.

The Fox, of course, does not compare to the Mississippi, but it does flood occasionally, and when it does, the towns along it clean up and rebuild what’s been damaged. Sometimes--and I know this will be shocking to you--they even get federal money to do the job.

The most recent serious flooding was in July of 1996, when about 18 inches of rain came down in a single day. All of the western suburbs of Chicago were hit, especially those along rivers. I spent much of that first day sloshing around in my basement, watching the water come up out of the sump and hoping for the power to come back on and restore life to the sump pump. But my wife and I were pretty lucky: our house is on fairly high ground and we only had a few inches in the basement. When the power did finally come back on, we saw plenty of news footage of people rowing and canoeing through their neighborhoods.

But you don’t have to accept my anecdotage. Here’s the abstract of a paper written in the aftermath of that flood:

A record-breaking 24-h rainstorm on 17-18 July 1996 was centered on south Chicago and its southern and western suburbs, areas with a population of 3.4 million. The resulting flash flooding in Chicago and 21 suburbs broke all-time records in the region and brought the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers above flood stage. More than 4300 persons were evacuated from the flooded zones and 35000 homes experienced flood damage. Six persons were killed and the total estimated cost of the flood (losses and recovery actions) was $645 million, ranking as Illinois’ second most costly weather disaster on record after the 1993 flood. Extensive damages and travel delays occurred on metropolitan transportation systems (highways and railroads). Commuters were unable to reach Chicago for up to three days and more than 300 freight trains were delayed or rerouted. Communities dealt with removal of flood-damaged materials, as well as damage to streets, bridges, and sewage treatment and water treatment plants. Reduced crop yields in adjacent rural areas represented a $67 million loss of farm income. Conflicts between communities developed over blame for the flooding due to inadequate storage capacity resulting in new regional flood planning. Federal and state aid ultimately reached $265 million, 41% of the storm costs. More than 85000 individuals received assistance, and 222 structures have been relocated under the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program at a cost of $19.6 million.

Hastert’s little home town was right in the middle of all this. In some ways, Yorkville had it worse than other towns along the Fox, because it’s where Blackberry Creek--which was also overflowing--converges with the Fox.

Did Hastert question the wisdom of rebuilding in Yorkville? Or Aurora, where he was born? Or Oswego, where he grew up? Or Batavia, St. Charles, Elgin, or any of the other river towns in his district? Oddly enough, no. Even odder, for someone so concerned about living where flooding is inevitable his biography on the House web site says “Hastert lives in Yorkville, Illinois, along the Fox River with his wife Jean.”