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posted: 7/15/2012 5:00 AM

DuPage hit hard two weeks ago, but pales compared to '96

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The framed, color reprint of the front page of our July 19, 1996, edition still hangs on the wall outside my office.

The main story contains one of my all-time favorite leads:

"For weeks, we cursed our cracked lawns and prayed for rain.

"On Thursday, we prayed for the rain to stop.

"Before it did, nearly 17 inches fell on parts of Aurora, with similar downpours hammering Lisle, Naperville, Warrenville and other suburbs."

The headline writer for that day's paper might have taken just a smidgen of poetic license with this one that stretches across all six columns: "The worst deluge in history." A two-column secondary headline reads, "Life in DuPage comes to a halt as rain brings massive floods." Hey, all of us in the DuPage office made it to work that day.

I walk by that front page dozens of times a day without noticing it, but I actually went looking for it because what happened in DuPage County on July 1 had some eerie similarities with our deluge of '96.

We were well on our way to being decreed a drought-stricken area when the Sunday storm hit two weeks ago. A key difference, though, was the recent storm came with winds in the 80 mph range and hail the size of quarters, but it did not produce the amount of rain we saw 12 years ago. In fact, the official tally at DuPage Airport was 1.19 inches.

Both storms cut a narrow swath through DuPage County. To be sure, the damage was widespread in 1996; 13 counties were declared disaster areas, and the National Guard was called out to assist. But the very worst of the rain seemed to run from Aurora through Naperville, Lisle and Downers Grove and started to lose its intensity as it hit the eastern edge of DuPage. Our July 1 storm creamed central DuPage, with many suggesting West Chicago was the epicenter of damage. Much of the southern and northern portions of the county emerged relatively unscathed.

(Brief sidebar: As I write this, on Friday afternoon, I hear the sound of thunder and see bolts of lightning. Oops, starting to rain. Note to copy desk: Update or spike this column if we get a 17-inch gully-washer over the weekend. Thanks.)

There is one big difference between the two storms: damage costs. When Don Rose, Wheaton city manager for 31 years, told Robert Sanchez in our recap story in Friday's editions that the cleanup from the July 1 storm was among the most extensive he's seen, I believe him. But in trying to qualify for federal damage assistance ($17.3 million in local damage was needed), the tally came up woefully short: $3.1 million. That's not chump change, but, by comparison, the first-day damage estimate in Naperville alone for the '96 storm was $2 million. Nothing, it seems to me, can wreak as much havoc as water. Our follow-up stories on people dealing with the aftermath of the flooding went on for weeks.

Which reminds me. Who remembers the great rains of 1986 and 1987? In those consecutive years, we were hit with so-called 100-year rains -- precipitation so severe it should statistically occur only once every 100 years. But even those numbers paled in comparison to what happened in '96: It took the entire month of August in 1987 to reach the 17-inch mark; in '86, the worst of the rain hit Lake County with a paltry 11 inches in a 24-hour span.

Throughout these epic storm events there is one constant: the performance of our utilities and governments is under the microscope. One barometer of how they did is letters to the editor. To be sure, at least one ComEd critic emerged. But on the other hand, we've gotten some touchingly nice notes. Two good examples appear on this page.

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