City recovers, lawsuit looms?

City Administrator Jim Ryan briefed the Rockford City Council on flood relief efforts during the Aug. 13 meeting. Ryan, who has taken the helm in Mayor Larry Morrissey’s (I) absence, began by thanking the community and Police and Fire personnel.

Less than a year after flooding ravaged parts of Rockford, Ryan found himself in the difficult position of acting mayor during a disaster while Morrissey is honeymooning in Canada. Although he drew much attention for a DUI arrest in February, most agree Ryan has steered the city through choppy waters with a steady hand.

“He gave us the feeling that he was in charge,” Ald. Victory Bell (D-5) said of Ryan’s response to the emergency.

Morrissey, who did not return to Rockford upon learning of the disaster, has been coordinating and monitoring developments remotely and has the utmost confidence in his staff to hold the fort. The mayor had planned to honeymoon through Aug. 17, but may shave his two-week vacation.

In our last issue, The Rock River Times incorrectly reported Seanna, daughter of Morrissey’s bride Stacey, was also traveling with the couple on their honeymoon. We regret the error.

Critics argue Morrissey may have committed political suicide by not returning immediately when his city was declared a disaster area, but Bell swam to the mayor’s defense.

“It’s not fair for anybody to even imply that a man should leave his honeymoon to come back to this city when he cannot do anything that Jim Ryan is not doing,” Bell argued.

Many feel the mayor’s presence would have been symbolically significant, regardless of what he could actually do to alleviate suffering.

“Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” WNTA’s Bruce Butler has been saying, echoing the sentiments of many callers to his show.

Nodding heads and chuckles of agreement were observed throughout council chambers when Bell said: “I would not have considered coming back to Rockford or anyplace else if I was on my honeymoon. That’s just something that a wife can never forgive a husband for doing.”

Taking another swing at relief dollars

Ryan reported the city began meeting with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) for a joint assessment of flood damage throughout Rockford. Focusing on Seventh Avenue, 15th Street and Sixth Avenue, assessment teams were able to inspect more than 200 structures Aug. 13 alone, according to Ryan. Inspections will continue for about a week. As of Aug. 13, 15 out of 700 inspected homes were condemned.

Ald. Jeff Holt (D-11), whose ward was among the hardest hit in both floods, argued FEMA and IEMA should also take into account last year’s flood, which left many who were hoping for reimbursements high and dry.

“I’m very saddened, and I try to understand what you’re going through,” Holt told his constituents in the 11th Ward. “I say ‘try’ because I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to not only go through a flood where your home is destroyed, where all your belongings have been lost, where your family is being displaced. But to go through it twice has got to be just something that I can’t physically comprehend.”

For some time, Holt had appeared to be positioning himself to run for mayor in the next election, until he announced plans to move from Rockford. Sensing some in his ward may feel abandoned, Holt assured them he still cares, and he’ll continue working hard for them.

An exhausted Ald. Nancy Johnson (D-8), who was noticeably losing her voice, also pledged to continue working tirelessly for her hard-hit ward.

Ryan noted officials from the Small Business Administration (SBA) have also arrived, as of Aug. 14, for assistance to local businesses impacted by flood waters. Ryan expressed concern, however, that the Human Services Department had received reports from only a few companies so far. Residents and businesses are urged to call Human Services at 815-987-5685 to report flood damage. After 5 p.m., calls should be directed to the Fire Department’s non-emergency line at 1-815-966-2900.

Ryan and aldermen joined Sen. Dick Durbin (D) and U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo (R-16) Aug. 14 to meet with the Army Corps of Engineers at the district office in Rock Island to expedite studies of problem areas.

“It’s that important,” Ryan stated. “We want to get ahead of the game so that we can apply for funding.”

“We dare not let this happen again.”

Areas surrounding the Alpine Dam were evacuated Aug. 7 after flood waters threatened to breach the spillway, raising new worries about the decaying structure. Ryan indicated design engineering should be completed by the end of the year, and crews are expected to start work in the spring.

“We’ll continue to seek federal reimbursement for these repairs, but we will not wait any longer to make these repairs,” Ryan said on Morrissey’s behalf.

Despite 2006’s Labor Day flood, which cost many residents their homes, no federal relief dollars were allocated for the disaster. Baffling flood victims, the city was later awarded FEMA assistance resulting from snow removal efforts related to a winter storm. The city and county have both redirected their FEMA snow emergency funds for flood relief.

Ald. Frank Beach (R-10), whose ward suffered both floods, expressed sincere grief for the victims.

“We’ve been warned once,” Beach noted. “We’ve been warned twice. We dare not let this happen again.

Referencing larger strides toward a solution, Beach vowed, “We’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it now.”

As Rockford learned after the 2006 flooding, Beach said, federal dollars cannot be counted on or waited for.

“We do not have that luxury. We need to be clever. We need to use our resources. We need to find solutions of how we can fund this issue now,” Beach insisted. “Thank God it’s not worse than it is.”

Hopelessness leads to anger, victims cry foul

After being ill prepared last Labor Day, city leaders determined the flood event was something that could only happen once in a 100 years, but promised flood control issues would be addressed. Still arguably ill-prepared 11 months later, city government had done little to prevent the disastrous repeat, according to many victims who say they’ve lost everything twice in one year.

Ald. Pat Curran (R-2) understands their aggravation.

“As frustrated as those citizens are who suffered the damage, we, too, are frustrated because we represent these people,” Curran explained, while praising the positive attitudes he’d experienced among flood victims he’d visited.

After a dramatic spectacle of a public hearing was staged by Manzullo and Morrissey following the 2006 flooding, FEMA and IEMA absorbed much of the blame for flood victims not seeing any significant help. This time, some are holding the city accountable.

Still trying to get back on their feet following last year’s flood, only to face the nightmare all over again, waterlogged residents feel their government has turned its back on them. With a renovated MetroCentre, a new hockey team, and talk of riverwalks and whitewater parks, two-time victims feel the city needs to get its priorities straight.

Representatives from Chicago law firm Sneckenberg, Thompson and Brody met with victims Aug. 13 to collect evidence and build a list of plaintiffs for a probable class-action lawsuit against the city. Residents who’ve suffered losses again argue city government is negligent for allegedly sitting on its hands in the wake of the 2006 flood.

What the city is doing

Ryan said city leaders have been doing everything in their power, in what little time they’ve had since the last flood, to put a plan of action in place. Following the Aug. 7 flooding, Ryan indicated the city is trying to speed up those efforts. The acting-mayor noted aldermen had approved funding for the Keith Creek study following the successful passage of the 1 percentage point sales tax referendum in April.

Ryan added a proposal for a comprehensive storm water management plan will be
going out for bids in the next month and that dollars have been allocated for Harmon Park bridge improvements in 2008. The city is likely to buy out some properties in the affected Harmon Park area.

“Those are all pieces of the puzzle to solve this problem,” Ryan said, also noting an $80,000 grant from FEMA for a Countywide Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan.

“All the state and federal programs that are out there for disaster mitigation,” Ryan explained, “are dependent upon the prerequisite of having this hazard mitigation study completed.”

Ryan said the studies typically take 18 months, but promised this one would be completed by the end of the year.

Ryan said the city and county have also been talking about cleaning up drainage channels.

“We will begin that cleanup effort coordination this week,” Ryan reported, adding Keith Creek would not be the only focus. The Spring, Madigan and Manning creek beds will also be covered.

Possible plaintiffs for a lawsuit feel those measures should have been taken immediately following the first disaster.

Ald. Holt added to the list of headaches when he told fellow aldermen of problems with reaching staff in the Human Services Department.

“I know I tried the same number a couple times today and, every time, got the voicemail,” Holt reported of the phone number flood victims have been asked to call. Holt requested the department hire temporary help to assist in fielding the torrent of calls. “When you’re dealing with a traumatic experience like this, the last thing you wanna do is leave a message.”

Clearly wishing to quell the potential lawsuit, Ryan assured residents city government is, and has been, on top of the problem.

“My heart goes out to the flooding victims,” Ryan concluded. “Please know that we will do everything possible to restore your lives and homes back to normal as quickly as we can.

“We’re much better prepared this year than we were last year,” Ryan said, crediting lessons learned from the Labor Day flood. Ryan said the database collected during that event improved the city’s response to the latest. Ryan stressed the importance of reporting flood damages for a well-documented case to acquire state and federal relief.

from the Aug 15-21, 2007, issue

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