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Article updated: 11/19/2012 11:45 AM

New berm protects Warrenville's Bower Elementary from flooding

Bower Elementary School officials and students cut a ribbon in an area that flooded four years ago. To prevent future flooding, the school district and county worked together to build a new berm between the DuPage River and the Warrenville school.

Bower Elementary School officials and students cut a ribbon in an area that flooded four years ago. To prevent future flooding, the school district and county worked together to build a new berm between the DuPage River and the Warrenville school.

 

Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

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After a flood swamped Bower Elementary School and shut down the Warrenville building for a week in September 2008, officials are welcoming a project designed to ease flooding in the area.

Water poured into the fifth-grade classrooms, gym, administrative offices and other parts of the school flanking the West Branch of the DuPage River. Close to six feet of water submerged below-ground art and music rooms, Principal Mark Kohlmann said.

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Classes resumed after a one-week closing, but the damage forced teachers, students and staff to use just half of the school during a six-month reconstruction project. Gym classes rotated, weather-permitting, from outdoors to the school's lobby. Fifth-grade classes set up with temporary tables in the library. The band and orchestra practiced in hallways.

"I've never seen a staff and community come together as well as they did," Kohlmann said. "I don't want to relive that, but everybody pitched in and pulled through."

Insurance covered about $1.7 million in damage, with Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 on the hook for a $1,000 deductible, said Bill Farley, assistant superintendent of business operations.

"Pretty much everything was ripped out of the part of the building that was affected," Kohlmann said.

Now, the principal and other officials are breathing a sigh of relief.

Improvements to an existing berm at the school were unveiled with a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony where students, a majority of whom attended the school when the flooding hit, saw a demonstration on how the revamped berm is designed to protect the building.

"Any type of significant rain like that, we were at risk big time for a repeat situation," Superintendent Brian Harris said.

The district and DuPage County partnered to fund the roughly $700,000 project. The district contributed about $200,000, Farley said. The county's stormwater and management division oversaw the berm's design and construction.

The project also was part of the lengthy thorium cleanup along the river. The radioactive material was a byproduct of work from the 1930s at a West Chicago gas light manufacturing plant, which closed in 1973.

Near Bower, contaminated materials were buried under several feet of soil in the old berm. Crews decontaminated the area before students returned to school this fall, officials said.

The improvements at Bower mark the first phase of a flood-control project aimed at alleviating flooding in Warrenville.

"That was our most important area because of the school year," said Jim Zay, county stormwater management planning committee chairman. "We wanted to get that done and out of the way so there weren't any issues with the school and any future flooding."

The county board member touted the partnership with the district.

"We didn't have three different engineers designing something different," Zay said. "We had one engineer, one construction company that came in and got everybody's concerns."

The 2008 flood that also "devastated" the downtown prompted the effort, Zay said. The work at Bower got under way this summer because the county had worked to secure funding through bonds for major stormwater projects along the West Branch.

"There's always one storm that's bigger than the next one," he said, "but we feel confident that this is going to give Bower some substantial protection."

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