For those of us in the Chicago area who have worked in wastewater, stormwater, public works, and collection systems management for a number of years, there are certain dates that stick in our minds: October 13, 2001; September 13, 2008; July 24, 2010; July 23, 2011. Some of us know them better than our relatives’ birthdays or our biggest personal milestones.
To our friends and companions, these dates probably mean little, but to us, they mean rain. Rain, and lots and lots of it.
We can now add April 18, 2013 to the list.
In some Chicago suburbs, it rained more than six inches Thursday morning, and few places in Cook or DuPage Counties saw less than four inches come down. According to the USGS, Elmhurst was hit hardest, with (unofficially) almost 7.5 inches for the total duration of the storm. If you’re keeping tally, that’s more than a 50-year storm, the third of its magnitude to impact some part of the Chicago area within the last three years.
Of course, most of our sewer and drainage infrastructure is simply not designed to handle such enormous and (increasingly less) rare events, and — as many commuters, homeowners, and businesses found out the hard way yesterday — the consequences are sometimes catastrophic. The property damage and water pollution caused by these events have a huge cost, both in dollars and in less tangible measures of human and ecological health.
As professionals whose work and livelihood is devoted to mitigating and preventing these costs, our feelings after an event like this can be somewhat complicated.
On the one hand, we empathize with those who have lost personal property or who were stranded or anxious as the storm passed through. The destruction caused by these events is real, painful, and sometimes irreparable, and we feel immensely for those who had to spend Thursday night trying to ventilate their basements or dragging damaged valuables by the curbside.
On the other hand, there is some level of excitement within our field brought on by a historic storm — especially for those of us tasked to study these events in their aftermath — and it goes well beyond that childlike “whoa, cool!” reaction to extreme weather that we never really outgrow.
As engineers and analysts, we’re motivated by challenges, and these events throw huge challenges right in front of our faces. We’re also data junkies, and there’s nothing that tickles a data junkie more than an anomaly. Six-plus inches of rain in less than a day’s time is, suffice it to say, quite an anomaly. These events — and the observations we collect during them — provide extremely rare and valuable real-life data points that are crucial to the engineering decisions we make. After all, it’s these rare events that we need to plan and design for.
Just as importantly, though, that sense of empathy invigorates us with renewed passion for achieving our objectives, and the losses withstood by the impacted communities often serve as the impetus for neglected collection system needs to be addressed. For us as engineers, that means more motivation, more challenges, and more problems that need solutions.
It will take some time to see just how the fallout from this storm will impact the communities in our area, but if similar past events are any guide, April 18, 2013 may go down as a date that exposed the need for some significant infrastructure improvements.
Vinnie Bergl, P.E. is a project engineer in the RJN Wheaton, IL office.