The Great Chicago Flood

Tens of thousands of office workers and store clerks streamed into the Loop as usual on this morning, only to be sent home for an unscheduled holiday. For many, that holiday lasted a week; for some, it went on for more than a month. The reason was one of the oddest calamities in American history: the Great Chicago Flood.

The next time you make an idiotic mistake at work, remember this: at least your stupid mistake isn’t likely to cause $1 billion worth of damage to the city of Chicago.

Unfortunately, a group of construction workers who were working on the Kinzie Street bridge (of Poopgate fame) back in 1992 can’t say the same.

Firefighters underground, 1992

You see, they accidentally punctured a hole in the ceiling of one of the tunnels under the Chicago River. For some reason, this wasn’t alarming to anyone… until 124 million gallons of water began pouring into the 47 mile network of tunnels that run under much of the Loop.

Inevitably, the water started flooding into the basements of buildings, knocking out electric power and natural gas service for much of the Downtown area. Everything from City Hall to the Chicago Board of Trade were forced to shut down, trains were rerouted, and it took weeks for most buildings to recover.

The best part: the city knew about the issue for three months prior to the flood, but in true Chicago fashion, they took too long approving the $10,000 contract needed to repair the issue.

It was a flood that no one at street level could see, a flood in which no one was injured. No one, except those trying to stop the water’s spread, got wet. But, as the Tribune reported, the invisible disaster turned the Loop “into a soggy ghost town” and caused damage and business losses of at least $1 billion. Trials at the Daley Center were postponed.

The Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange closed. Rapid transit trains were rerouted for weeks while water was pumped out of subway tunnels. City Hall was evacuated.

In September 1991, a private contractor had driven new wooden pilings into the river bed next to the Kinzie Street drawbridge to protect the bridge from passing barges and other traffic on the North Branch of the Chicago River. The pilings had been placed in the wrong spot and punctured the ceiling of the freight tunnel below.

A view from the bridge

A slow leak was discovered in January by cable-TV company workers who were inspecting cables that ran through the tunnel. City officials were notified, but because of bureaucratic hemming and hawing, nothing was done.

Mayor Richard M. Daley demanded and received the resignation of a city official who was in charge of the department that was responsible for inspecting the tunnels. Pumping the water out of buildings and the tunnel system took weeks, but even three years later, city government was feeling the invisible disaster’s financial effects. On Aug. 11, 1995, city lawyers agreed to pay up to $36 million in damages to settle lawsuits brought by Marshall Field & Co. and insurers for about a dozen buildings damaged by the flood waters.

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