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Article updated: 4/20/2013 12:33 PM

Des Plaines River receding; officials describe evacuation

By Madhu Krishnamurthy

Des Plaines city officials and residents are gearing up for a massive cleanup effort with the Des Plaines River starting to recede from its record high of 10.92 feet reached Friday afternoon. The river had fallen to 10.67 feet by 8:45 a.m. Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

The previous record was 10.9 feet set in 1986.

Many streets remain impassable. Des Plaines firefighters continued evacuating homes along Big Bend Drive, Hawthorne Lane, Hawthorne Terrace and Junior Terrace through Friday night.

Des Plaines Fire Chief Alan Wax said Saturday that firefighters have evacuated 70 residents from flooded homes, rescued 15 people from cars stuck in floodwater, and rescued one person from the river.

Some residents in flooded neighborhoods waited until the last minute to ask for the city's help with evacuation, which is being done with fire department boats and high-clearance vehicles, said Tim Oakley, the city's director of engineering and public works who is leading the city's emergency response to flooding.

"It's primarily the area north of Rand Road and east of River Road -- there's two or three subdivisions in that particular area," Oakley said. "The water is now receding so what we're concentrating on is the traffic control. We will be moving barricades, checking our infrastructure."

Cleanup is still several days away as the water needs to recede further before it can begin in earnest.

"There are a total of 771 properties that appear to be affected," said Alex Dambach, director of community and economic development.

City officials have increased police presence at problem locations where motorists have been driving over smaller barricades and through flooded streets, Oakley said.

"So then we put the larger barricades up," Oakley said. "If they create a wake as they drive through the water, it may cause more damage."

Open storm sewer manholes pose a threat to anyone navigating floodwaters either by vehicle or on foot, Oakley said.

"That's why it's important not to drive through the water. You might drive into a manhole opening or hit the cover," he said. "You don't know what's under the water."

Once the floodwaters recede, officials will start making provisions for inspections and cleanup, though in less affected parts of town residents have started putting out flood-damaged items on parkways, he added.

Many residents had left on their own when flooding began.

And 252 elderly residents were evacuated Thursday evening from The Heritage in downtown Des Plaines after the power failed and floodwaters threatened a backup generator.

The flooding was widespread, encompassing an area affecting roughly 5,600 single-family homes and condominium units just west of the river.

"We went through the last one, so we know the drill," said Phil Festoso, a resident of Sherwood Lane near Big Bend Lake, who evacuated with his wife and three children early Thursday after the river level was projected to crest at 11 feet. "We were out before the water got into the house."

Festoso struggled through the waist-deep water Friday afternoon with waders on to check on the condition of his house.

"I just try to roll with the punches," he said calmly. "I'm not investing too much emotion into it. I think the pain will come later with all the forms, insurance problems. The cleanup is the worst. Right now, it's just trying to get through it. This is almost fun -- walking through water like a little kid."

Festoso said cleaning up after the 2008 flood was horrible because the family had a lot more stuff in the basement.

"It's quite the scene," he said. "We went through a big one just recently. We know what to expect."

Festoso was frustrated with the frequency of major flooding events in Des Plaines over the last three decades.

"It's like almost every two to three years there's flooding here," he said. "We didn't move into a flood plain. We just happen to live in one now."

At The Heritage, Jean Murphy said when she arrived about at 6 p.m. Thursday to help her mother-in-law, there was a lineup of buses, private cars and buses from other senior communities there to evacuate people.

The building had lost power, except for that running the elevators in the 10-story building, and a couple of hundred people in wheelchairs and with walkers were in the lobby and dining area, waiting for transport, Murphy said.

"It was very orderly and well run," she said. "The people at The Heritage did an incredible job and obviously had a plan in place that was well executed."

Most Heritage residents were relocated to three area hotels. Regular Heritage staff members were at these hotels, looking after their clientele as usual.

Though power was restored to the building Friday, administrators won't decide until at least Sunday when to begin moving residents back.

Most people evacuated in Des Plaines were staying with relatives or at area hotels. A shelter at Prairie Lakes Community Center, 515 E. Thacker St., held only one Des Plaines resident Friday morning, although a number of people from Hillside were staying there, as that town's flooding was so severe there was no good place in town to evacuate people.

Elhanan Jones of Des Plaines had been at the shelter since 10 a.m. Thursday after the Polo Inn on Lee Street was flooded.

"When the water started coming, I was in bed. I got up every 30 minutes just to check and see what the level was," Jones said. "It just came in like a river. We pretty much evacuated ourselves."

Jones said his room was several feet under water and he placed all his electronics on top of the bed with the hope that items wouldn't be destroyed.

"This is the first time I have experienced it," Jones said. "This is my first time being displaced."

Jones said motel residents saw sewage gushing up across the street like a geyser from a broken water main. "The river did rise, but I think if they had adequate drainage, we wouldn't have gotten hit," he said.

Several Hillside residents who had been living in the Oak Ridge Manor apartment complex said they were moved to three different shelters before finally being sent to Des Plaines.

"Everything's gone," said Beverlyn Houston, who was with her mother at the shelter waiting to figure out where they could stay. "Never been through anything like it before in our life. I didn't have a chance to get my pets. We barely had a chance to grab anything. Some people didn't have anything to walk out with."

Houston said other than providing the basic necessities, no one has approached the displaced residents to help with housing options. "We don't know what we're going to do," she said.

Also out of commission was the Des Plaines Fire Department headquarters. Station 1 at 405 S. River Road was evacuated early Thursday as the river rose rapidly. On Friday, the station remained barricaded with sandbags, bladders and Jersey barriers as crews pumped out what water had gotten through in an effort to protect the station's basement from flooding.

And police warned that it's important those living in or going through the flooded area follow precautions. Pedestrians and motorists should not remove barricades, nor should they go around barricades. Walking in floodwaters poses health and safety issues, police said.

Please send your flood stories and photos to feedback@dailyherald.com so we can include them in our online and print coverage. Daily Herald staff writer Eric Peterson contributed to this story.

Floods: Evacuation of elderly called smooth; shelter residents rushed out

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