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New county hazard plan could lead to fed grants to buy flood-prone houses

Saturday, June 07, 2014
Pioneer Press
by Ira Leavitt

It’s amazing what can be done when you have the right paperwork.

And Glenview is one of the few suburbs that has it, in the form of a Federal Emergency Management Agency-approved Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan. Okayed in 2008, it has helped bring millions of FEMA dollars into the village for flood-prevention.

Glenview is likely on the way to get millions more soon, to buy up flood-prone houses and tear them down.

If jurisdictions don’t have the plans, they don’t get FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program money.

Glenview, Des Plaines and Chicago are three of the few towns in Cook County that do have such plans. Cook County was supposed to have one years ago, to cover every jurisdiction, but it stalled under the County Board’s Todd Stroger administration.

Now, that plan is in draft form, after 115 jurisdictions got together late last year to map out the vulnerabilities in their areas, and develop action plans to start fixing them.

Rob Flaner, the former-FEMA private contractor that led the drafting of the plan, said it’s the biggest one ever – not only because it’s inclusive, and because Cook is the nation’s second-biggest county, but also because there are just so many jurisdictions, many overlapping, involved.

Illinois, of course, may not have as much business as it used to, but it still has more government than any other state.

Flaner told a gathering of suburban emergency officials in Glenview May 29 that no matter what each had put in his or her town’s portion of the draft plan, he added a desire to “buy-back” houses in areas where flooding is endemic.

“The buy-back (initiative) is FEMA’s number-one thing now,” Michael Cosme, senior civil engineer, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, said May 29. “That’s what they want to do.”

FEMA’s view is simple: houses that aren’t there anymore can’t flood, can’t fall down in landslides, can’t burn in wildfires – they just aren’t there to cause further expense and human tragedy when whatever particular disaster that has struck before, strikes again.

Joe Kenney, Glenview director of community development, said May 30 that his town is deep into the planning for a FEMA grant application to buy back at least 18 houses near the West Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River.

“We plan to finalize our application this summer, and hope to hear back on the process in the fall,” he said May 30.

No homes will be purchased if owners don’t want to sell, he said. But the reaction has been very positive, he added.

FEMA pays 75 percent of the cost, and there are several other sources, including the MWRD, for the rest.

In March, Des Plaines got $2.7 million from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) to buy back 21 houses in the Big Bend subdivision, in the Des Plaines River floodplain. About $900,000 more will come from the MWRD and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The former house lots will be converted to open space, which will soak up water from storms instead of supporting houses that get damaged.

“I think, county-wide, this will be very common once the county has the plan in place,” Kenney said.

The HMGP doesn’t just pay to tear down houses; it pays to protect them, too. In January, the FEMA program agreed to send $2.8 million for a Glenview storm drain project.

The kind of money that’s been available to Glenview could be available elsewhere in the county, once the new plan is approved.

The draft will be shipped to FEMA around June 13, so anything that isn’t there should be added now. Residents of Cook County towns who know of local hazards might check the draft plan before then to make sure their particular problem is included, and contact their municipal government if it’s not. The plan is designed to be amended later, however, in case hazards are missed, as new ones crop up, and new ways of solving them are dreamed up.

Later this year, each jurisdiction’s board will consider the draft plan as a whole, and vote on whether to approve it. Most counties in the nation approved plans long ago.

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