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McLean County Rainfall Tops 100-Year Flood Projections

The view from a residential neighborhood in Normal, near Fort Jesse Road and Blair.
The view from a residential neighborhood in Normal, near Fort Jesse Road and Blair.
Updated: June 28, 2021 at 4:56 PM CDT
WGLT updated this story to include Bloomington's special bulk waste collection.

Severe thunderstorms and flash flooding in McLean County over the weekend uprooted pavement, stranded drivers, and filled basements with water.

South Bloomington, Heyworth, Downs, and LeRoy bore the brunt of it, logging more than 10 inches of rain over the course of three days.

State Climatologist Trent Ford, who’s based at the University of Illinois’ State Water Survey, said to call the rainfall "unusual" would be an understatement.

Ford said it blew past once-in-a-century projections for the area.

“That number is just under 9 inches for Central Illinois, which means that we have about a 1% chance of getting just a little bit under 9 inches in a three-day period any given year,” Ford said. “So the fact that some of those areas exceeded that total by more than an inch to an inch and a half … we're approaching the 500-year event.”

Ford said some of the clearest indicators of the severity of the rainfall were seen in transportation systems.

“Whenever we see interstates underwater, like we saw on I-55 and for a smaller part I-74 near Downs, that’s a really extreme event, because those are some of the highest lying areas in the region,” Ford said.

In addition to damaging homes and vehicles, Ford said, the weekend’s rainfall caused significant runoff into streams in rivers. That water carries harmful chemicals with it, and in agricultural areas, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

Farmers, themselves, will likely feel the impact too. Ford said standing water can cause serious problems for crop—especially corn and soybeans.

“Yesterday, it got up to the mid- to high-80s in the area. That water that sits on top and is covering that crop can heat up a lot faster than the air, so you can have issues with significant heat stress from standing water and oxygen issues for plants.”

Ford said it’s difficult to link individual extreme rainfall events to climate change. However, he said, the frequency and intensity of heavy rain have been on the rise for decades.

“What would have been, let's say, a 100-year rainfall event 50 or 60 years ago may now be a 50- or 70-year rainfall event, which means the probability or likelihood that that happens is increasing,” Ford said. “Now, I will say that getting 10 inches of rain in a three-day period, no matter how much climate change we've had or will continue to have into the future, is still a very extreme event.”

Still, Ford said city and municipal leaders are grappling with the need to update stormwater drainage and other infrastructure. He said cities usually plan around the 100-year event. Those projections were originally published in 1989, but are increasing.

“Just like everything, we have a competition for funds,” Ford said. “Bloomington-Normal, for example—updating that city's stormwater drainage infrastructure is a tremendous investment. It is something that we will continue to be confronted by and struggle with into the future.”

Insurance claims

Many insurance agents and claims representatives have been working overtime since many people's sump pumps stopped working after heavy weekend rains.

Country Financial representative Melissa Isenburg of Bloomington said she doesn't recall seeing so much water damage in her 18 years in insurance.

“I don’t recall taking calls like I did on this claim,” Isenburg said. “I know our claims area, they have had representatives working on this since Friday.”

Country Financial reported it took 389 damage claims as of Monday morning. Most of them were in Bloomington, Normal and Heyworth. Isenburg said most of the claims were for sump pump overflows, but she said County Financial also fielded some claims for auto, wind and roof leak damage.

Isenburg said the insurer also took seven wind and 18 hail claims for crop damage following weekend storms.

Isenburg noted standard homeowner insurance doesn't cover flooding. That is run by the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

“I did have couple (clients) that did not have sump pump coverage. Unfortunately (flooding) is not going to be a covered peril," Isenburg said.

The City of Bloomington is offering a toll-free number residents can report a claim if they feel the city bears any fault. To report a claim to the city’s claim administrator, PMA Companies, call (800) 476-2669.

"Over the past couple of days, our city experienced an unprecedented amount of precipitation that has resulted in significant property damage for some of our residents.” Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe said in a news release.

Organizations impacted

The West Bloomington Revitalization Project suffered severe flood damage.

Hannah Russell, operations manager for the community organization, said she found a sludgy mess when she came to work in the building at Washington and Allen streets.

"The main floor looked like it probably had a few inches of water. Then I checked out the basement. It looked like we had 6 feet of water in the basement. Shelves that we had filled to the ceiling, everything was moved around," said Russell.

The basement held most of the organization's Tool Library, a lending library of hundreds of tools for people on the west side to check out for projects. Supplies for the Bike Co-op were also in the basement, said Russell.

"A lot of people have put a lot of energy into that basement; and then just the value of the items down there. So, to see it all just trashed overnight, that really sucked to see," said Russell.

She said anything with fabric or an electric motor is a loss. Salvageable bicycles and tools will have to be power washed. Russell said the WBRP will need volunteers and donations to do that work once the electrician says its safe to enter. A less quantifiable loss, Russell said, is the fact the building served as a kind of community hangout, especially for young people. Even Monday morning, Russell said, kids were coming by and asking what would be happening.

Home Sweet Home's basement flooded with over 38 inches of accumulated rainfall this past weekend, resulting in significant damage to equipment and storage areas.
Home Sweet Home Ministries
Home Sweet Home's basement flooded with over 38 inches of accumulated rainfall this past weekend, resulting in significant damage to equipment and storage areas.

Home Sweet Home Ministries is another of the many places to have large amounts of water damage.

Spokesperson Leslie Bunge said the homeless services provider measured 38 inches of water in its facility on Oakland Avenue in Bloomington.

"The water came rushing in with so much force it caused damage to our freezers. That resulted in a huge loss of frozen foods. We also sustained major damage to our air conditioning, our laundry facilities, our storage shelves that we had our linens on and other donations that have come through our doors. Even our maintenance areas were all affected," said Bunge.

Home Sweet Home Ministries is asking members of the community for patience and donations. Bunge said it will take several weeks to regain full use of the shelter, though they are taking care of clients there.

"The loss could have been a lot greater because our Bread For Life food co-op was located in the basement and we just recently moved the co-op to our new location just over a month ago. It would have been more of a loss of food and freezers if the co-op were still down there," said Bunge.

Both the West Bloomington Revitalization Project and Home Sweet Home Ministries are located at the bases of hills, which made the runoff from the heavy rains even more problematic.

Illinois State University has damage reports from 15 separate buildings on campus.

"We've been addressing them ever since it began. We just have a few left to take off our list. We are examining a couple of the buildings for health and safety to make sure we are addressing them in the correct manner," said Kristie Toohill, ISU Director of Facilities Management.

She said in most cases water came in the front steps of the buildings and it was possible to extract water from carpets and use fans to dry the area, but a couple had more prolonged exposure.

"For example, Old Union took on quite a bit of water on the first floor. Another example of one of the main buildings hit would be Fell Hall and that was the basement there," said Toohill. "State Farm Hall of Business in the basement area and the Center for Visual Arts basement were also pretty wet."

She said the university has a team that is developing a dollar damage estimate.

"We might have some drywall to replace, but I have not heard of any equipment being impacted at this time," said Toohill.

She also gave a shoutout to building service workers and facilities staff for the weekend call.

"This was a communitywide flash flood and a lot of people were affected in their homes. We're very happy people were willing to come in and help us when they were dealing with things at home. We're thankful we have a great crew," said Toohill.

She said "we do feel very lucky."

Free bulk waste pickup

The City of Bloomington announced Monday afternoon it will suspend its $25-per-bucket charge for bulk waste pickup to help residents with cleaning up after the storms.

According to a news release, the city will suspend the fees immediately for a special collection that will begin July 6 and will run for approximately two weeks.

City officials said crews will suspend brush pickup during that time frame so they can focus on the special collection. The city plans to release a collection schedule at a later date.

Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.
Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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