Gurnee tearing down at-risk buildings after historic flooding
Every time Gurnee Barber Shop would flood, its owner would mark the date on a cabinet.
The first note was made April 1, 1960, by Bud McCann, who built the business in 1948. The final entry was made in July by current owner Melinda Moore, after the record flood that was the building's last.
This month, the village bought the building at 4630 Old Grand Ave. for $105,000 and knocked it down as part of its ongoing floodplain acquisition program. It was the 27th property in the flood plain -- the downtown area just east of the Des Plaines River along Grand Avenue and Old Grand Avenue -- purchased through the program since it began in the 1990s.
By removing the buildings, the flood zone does a better job of soaking up water and the village has to spend fewer resources fighting rising waters and cleaning up the damage.
Perhaps the biggest building demolished by the village was Gurnee Grade School. Located on Kilbourne Road, about 600 feet from the river, the school was built in 1954 and demolished in fall 2013. Viking Park now stands in its place.
"Our program has been a major success," said Jack Linehan, the assistant to the village administrator. "We have been on the forefront of communities in Illinois taking a proactive approach to addressing flood mitigation."
The July flood was perhaps the worst in the village's history. After heavy rains, the Des Plaines River crested at 12.09 feet July 16, a record height and more than 5 feet above flood stage. Once flooding began, the water stayed in the flood plain for days before draining away.
That final flood took a toll on Moore, who lived with her son in an apartment behind the barber shop. The weeks of cleanup that followed were exhausting and seemed never-ending. At night, she said, she would lay down to sleep between two buzzing generators in her SUV and pray for relief.
Moore took the cabinet with her to the barber shop's new location at 4262 Old Grand Ave. -- three blocks east and up a hill where she doesn't expect to ever face a flood again.
Linehan said the reason flooding has steadily increased in Gurnee has to do largely with development. As land has been paved over, there is less soil to soak up rain water. The water has to go somewhere, and increasingly one of those places is the Gurnee flood zone.
"Changing corn fields to shopping malls has certainly made a dramatic impact," he said.
According to the village, Gurnee's downtown has about 20 buildings left in the high-risk flood area. Linehan said the village will continue to buy properties as they become available and if they are able to secure funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
And, property owners have to want to leave as well. Those interested can sign up for the program through the village.
Once the village buys and demolishes the buildings, the land is left vacant so it can soak up rainwater.
Gurnee attorney Barb Swanson has represented several residents who used to live in the flood zone on Kilbourne Road and Emerald Avenue, went through the process and were satisfied by it.
Swanson believes the program has helped reduce the amount of flooding since it began.
She cites a photograph in her office taken during the flood of 1986 of someone paddling a canoe down Old Grand Avenue in front of her building.
"The river was higher this year and yet I had far less water than I did in 1986," Swanson said.
Moore said she remembers the attitude among most business owners in the flood zone was they wanted to stay where they were, one reason being because the rent was affordable.
"And after the flood recedes and you clean up, it doesn't take long to get comfortable again," Moore said. "And each year there isn't a flood, you gain confidence there won't be another one."