National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Past flood lessons make Midwest counties more resilient to disaster

By Charles Taylor


Photo courtesy of Lake County, Ill.
A change of prepositions: This structure “at” Lake County, Ill.’s Channel Lake was “in” the lake for a time during April flooding that hit several Midwestern states.


Lake County, Ill. lived up to its name when torrential spring rains in April brought unprecedented levels of high water to parts of the county that rarely experience flooding.

“We received 5–6 inches within a few days, and already the river levels were high and the ground conditions were not capable of taking in that much extra rainfall,” said Kurt Woolford, flood operations manager for the county’s Stormwater Management Commission. Early estimates put the damage to public facilities and infrastructure at $5 million, he said.

This wasn’t the first time at the rodeo for Lake or the counties in Michigan and Indiana that also flooded last month. They’ve been inundated before, albeit to lesser and varying degrees. For them, however, the past has served as prologue in teaching lessons that have made them more disaster-resilient and better able to cope with the recent floods.

Like Cook County to the south, Lake County also abuts Lake Michigan, and it has more than 160 bodies of water within its borders. Since Lake County’s last major flooding in 2004, the county applied for and received a $161,000 stimulus grant in 2010 to do more detailed, airborne laser mapping, known as LiDAR, said Keith Caldwell, manager of the county’s GIS mapping division.

The new GIS data, which included one-foot topographical contours — previously available data showed two-foot contours — predicted that more than 4,000 parcels in the county could be affected. That level of detail, Caldwell said, is “almost unheard of at the county level. Typically that’s a municipal level of accuracy.

“Having the ability to target these areas to send your personnel resources out … brings all kinds of efficiencies to the operation to respond effectively to the citizens,” he said.

Woolford added that the county was also able to provide communities, residents and businesses with maps that showed the degree of inundation predicted for their areas. “As the high waters came up, we had phone calls, and they confirmed that these maps are pretty accurate; this is exactly the area that flooded,” he said.

For the first time, having more precise mapping data enabled the declaration of disaster areas to be made from the emergency operations center (EOC) rather than through “boots-on-the-ground” field surveys, Woolford said.

County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor said the county has also taken advantage of federal grants and state grants to do land buyouts in flood-prone areas. Just last month, the County Board approved the use of grant funding to demolish a school in the central part of the county that has flooded multiple times “to basically help ameliorate flooding in future events,” he said.

The hard science of improved mapping wasn’t the only technological advance Lake County took advantage of since the last major flood nine years ago. It wasn’t until in 2006 that the now-ubiquitous social networking platform, Twitter, would be created. Lawlor used his personal account to relay information from his visits to flooded areas. “While I was doing that, I took the opportunity to tweet pictures of the damage around the county,” he said.

A Little Farther South

 In Indiana, Hamilton County — near Indianapolis — also experienced flooding in April. Two men were killed there when their vehicles were overcome by rushing floodwaters.

Thomas Sivak, executive director, Hamilton County Emergency Management, said his county experienced “a historical rain event.” Pre-disaster, a community’s resiliency — it’s ability to return to normal — depends on preparedness, he said, and post-disaster, it hinges on recovery. One of the keys to coping and recovering is the nonprofit community, including social and safety net service providers.

“One of our big deficiencies that we see across the area, and across the country, is the preparedness of nonprofits,” he added. “And we see that a lot of our nonprofits are partners, but what are their plans to continue operations in the event that a disaster were to happen?” To address this, the county is continuing to “pay forward” its lessons learned.

“We’ve identified that we need to do a working plan-writing seminar to bring these nonprofits together and to talk with them about continuity of operations, and actually help them write their plans,” Sivak said.

His department will test the concept in two-day pilot program May 16–17 by bringing in subject-matter experts to lead representatives of local nonprofits through the process of creating a disaster plan. One hope is that the sessions will  also provide an opportunity to build relationships and learn who the key players are — before a disaster strikes.

“At the end of the day (they) create a network,” Sivak said. “The subject-matter expert is going to give them their contact information when they’re done.”