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Flood Watch Continues, But Chicago Area Might Have ‘Dodged A Bullet For Now’

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Updated 02/20/14 – 6:30 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) – Though an areal flood watch remains in effect until mid-afternoon for virtually all of northern Illinois, at least one official who monitors water levels in local rivers and streams said there’s less risk than feared, thanks to less rain than originally forecast.

Rain fell on and off throughout the area Thursday morning, and an areal flood watch remains in effect through 3 p.m., because the rain and melting snow and ice could push some rivers or streams past flood stage.Thursday’s storm system also could bring high winds in the evening, adding the threat of flying debris and damaged trees.

Although the rain and melting snow and ice have left large puddles of water on many streets, a top DuPage County flood prevention official said the rain hasn’t been as bad as predicted, and there is less of a chance of the kind of flooding originally feared.

“I think we dodged a bullet for now,” said Jim Zay, chairman of the DuPage County Stormwater Management Planning Committee. “We’re in really good shape. It seems to be we’re kind of downgrading everything; that the rain’s not materializing like we thought.”

A measuring post sticking out of Salt Creek in Elmhurst showed the water 3 feet below the level at which gates would open to allow overflow to run into a huge quarry, which can hold 2.5 billion gallons of water if needed.

Zay said there was less rain in the early morning than predicted, reducing the risk for flooding.

“It’s better this way. We’re prepared if we need it,” he said.

In southwest suburban Lockport, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District has opened the gates at the Lockport Dam, which helps control the flow of water from Lake Michigan to the Des Plaines River. By opening the gate, the district provided more room in the waterway for runoff from the rain and melting snow.

MWRD officials said, as of about 10 a.m. Thursday, the Deep Tunnel system was taking in water, but the system was mostly empty. The Mainstream Tunnel was at 38 percent capacity, the Des Plaines Tunnel was at 22 capacity, and the Calumet Tunnel was at 13 percent capacity. All told, the entire MWRD tunnel system can hold 2.3 billion gallons of water.

A reservoir near O’Hare Airport can hold another 354 million gallons, and was empty as of Thursday morning.

Thursday’s rainfall had flood-watchers on high alert, going so far as to suggest that people put off using large quantities of water until the threat of flooding lessened.

They opened the gates in the Des Plaines River near Lockport to lower the level of the Chicago River, as well as the rest of what they call the Chicago Area Waterway System, to make room for all the water. But less rain than expected and a more gradual snow melt eased their fears, as well as the flow of water.

“It seems like we’re holding pretty well. We’re pretty low, so that’s good news,” David St. Pierre of the Chicago Water Reclamation District tells CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine.

While the water levels on the Northwest Side are still four feet or so below what would be considered dangerous, other water on the streets overlaps the curbs and the snow yet to melt. Water officials suggest residents temporarily put off washing clothes or dishes or even taking a shower.

Though no significant flooding has been reported along city streets, water has backed up into some basements.

Sam Daoud, a Chicago landlord, was on his way to an apartment that flooded, after stopping at Home Depot for some supplies.

“The sewers are frozen, and the water’s not going down,” he said. “I don’t think the city has time right now for nobody.”

Daoud said he was buying some salt to put down on storm around the storm drains near his building, to help get rid of the snow and ice blocking the flow of water into the sewers.

Jefferson Park resident Joanne Jenkinson said she and her neighbors are surprised the rain hasn’t been as bad as they anticipated, but they’re still worried if the worst might be yet to come. The North Branch of the Chicago River flows through the neighborhood, so they’re worried it might overflow its banks.

“Is it over? Are we still going to get flooded basements?” she said. “I’m wondering what I’m going to go home to tonight.”

Officials in Chicago and the suburbs were urging residents to help clear debris, snow, and ice off storm drains to help avoid flooding.

However, the threat does not end entirely after the rain stops, as snow and ice will continue to melt, and could swell rivers and streams further on Friday, when temperatures will reach about 37 degrees.

In addition to the flood watch, the National Weather Service has issued a high wind warning from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. for most of the Chicago area. Sustained winds could reach up to 40 mph, and gusts could reach up to 60 mph in the early- to mid-evening hours, possibly causing tree damage, and making road conditions dangerous.

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