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Curious City

Which Natural Disasters Are Most Likely To Hit Chicago?

It might seem like the world is conducting a dress rehearsal of the apocalypse with the recent earthquake in Mexico and the hurricanes that have battered the gulf states and the Caribbean.

Like a lot of people, Ed Corcoran has been alarmed by this spate of natural disasters that have killed hundreds of people and caused billions of dollars in damage.  

“And it got me thinking about events in other cities, like when Hurricane Sandy hit New York a couple years back and did unthinkable damage,” he says. “And there will probably be more earthquakes in LA or San Francisco.”

So Ed wrote to Curious City and asked: What is the most likely natural disaster to do major damage to Chicago?

That’s a question that weighed heavily on Suzanne Malec-McKenna. As the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Environment from 2007 to 2011, she helped create a game plan for the city to prepare for natural disasters.

When she heard Ed’s question, she immediately offered up some good news and some bad news.

The good news: “We live in one of the best places you can be,” Malec-McKenna says. Because of its location, Chicago will not likely be hit by hurricanes, tsunamis, and rising sea levels that have plagued coastal areas. And the city is located next to Lake Michigan, one of the largest sources of fresh water, which is essential to human survival and important during times of drought.

The bad news: The Chicago area is becoming more vulnerable to a host of other disasters that don’t usually get the Hollywood treatment, but could have major consequences. All of them have to do with the extreme weather that comes with climate change.

Here’s a rundown of the natural disasters that Malec-McKenna says can do the most damage to Chicago.

Flooding

Climate change is making storms more intense, and we’ve paved over many areas — with streets, sidewalks, and parking lots — that used to be covered with dirt and grasses, Malec-McKenna says. This means there is less land to absorb rain, so it runs into sewers, streets, and home basements.

She also says Chicago’s Deep Tunnel system — tunnels and reservoirs designed 40 years ago to hold excess rainwater — simply doesn’t have the capacity to handle today’s storms.

This summer, floods in Lake, McHenry and Kane counties blocked roadways and caused millions of dollars in property damage.

Impact: Flooding causes widespread property damage while polluting rivers and lakes with sewage and surface runoff, Malec-McKenna notes. It further takes a huge toll on the city’s infrastructure, overloading sewers, and closing roads.

Solutions: Malec-McKenna says city planners and developers can create more water-absorbent surfaces, like permeable alleys, that can hold water instead of sending it into sewers. City officials can use places like parks to hold water in restored wetlands and even reservoirs built beneath the park.

When it comes to city residents, she recommends swapping plants with shallow roots, like grass, with deeper-rooted plants to create more water-absorbent landscapes. Chicagoans can also help reduce flooding by connecting gutters to rain barrels and limiting their water use — showers, dishwasher and washing machines — during storms. That excess water can further overload the sewers.

Drought

The extreme temperatures and rainfall brought on by climate change will create more dry spells, Malec-McKenna says.

“It seems counterintuitive that you can have both flood and drought,” she says. “But storm water is so intense that it runs right off our flat lands.”

And because we’ve lost so much water-absorbent land to streets, parking lots, and pavement, we can’t retain the water, she says.

Impact: Droughts will throw the local ecosystem out of balance, Malec-McKenna says. It will hurt crops and add stress to trees and other plants that birds and insects rely on for survival. For example, from 2011 to 2012, Illinois’ corn yield dropped by 36 percent because of drought, according to state officials.

Droughts could mean less food, reduced animal populations, and the proliferation of invasive species.

Solutions: Malec-McKenna says there’s not a lot residents and officials can do, but she recommends growing plants that are drought tolerant and have deep roots, which can hold more moisture in the soil.

Heat waves

Malec-McKenna says climate change will create more extreme temperatures, and the depletion of the ozone layer will reduce protection from the sun. Those two factors combined will lead to more extreme heat, she says.

Federal authorities expect those trends to continue, and they announced in 2012 that temperatures in Chicago have become inhospital to some regional plants.  

Impact: A heat wave in 1995 killed more than 700 people in Chicago, with the elderly among those who were most affected.

Higher temperatures also kill some native plants while fostering the growth of invasive species, like buckthorn, garlic mustard, purple loosestrife, and the possible arrival of the tree-killing kudzu weed. This has disrupted the habitat of migrating birds and insects that rely on these plants and ecosystems in order to live.

Solutions: People who live in the Chicago area can walk, bike, or ride public transportation as a way to help cut down on vehicle emissions, Malec-McKenna says. They can also cut back on their energy usage. Property owners can plant green roofs or paint roofs a lighter color because dark, impermeable surfaces raise the ambient temperature, she says.

Extreme Cold

Be prepared to hear the term “polar vortex” in more weather reports. Along with more heat waves, Malec-McKenna says Chicago should expect more periods of extreme cold thanks to climate change.

Impact: Certain vegetation will die off. Other plants may bud too soon and then lose their blossoms to a cold snap, which happened in the spring of 2012 and decimated fruit crops. This will reduce food and vegetation important for humans, insects, and animals.

It can also mean life-threatening temperatures for animals and people. During a polar vortex in 2014, more than 20 people died in Chicago.

Solutions: Landscapers can plant hardy species that can tolerate both heat and cold. Residents and developers can build and retrofit homes to be better insulated and energy efficient.

Snowpocalypse

Blizzards are part of the increased precipitation in store for Chicago, but Malec-McKenna says it’s not all bad.

“A snowpocalypse is actually quite good for us because it’s natural precipitation that doesn't flow off quickly,” she says. “So it can absorb into the soil. It also serves as an insulation blanket for the species we want to keep around. Now, the danger of it snapping tree limbs and power lines is another story. But as far as the health of our region is concerned, snow is good.”

Impact: In addition to broken tree limbs and downed power lines, a snowpocalypse can severely disrupt transportation and city services.

Solutions: Grab a shovel and help your neighbors.

What about earthquakes and tornadoes?

Malec-McKenna notes that neither of these are a major risk to Chicago.

Although Illinois is located on the New Madrid fault line, earthquakes don’t pose a major danger to northern Illinois, according to experts in the field.

Tornadoes are a threat to the Chicago area, but few have penetrated the city limits in the last 150 years, Malec-McKenna says.

More about our questioner

(Courtesy Ed Corcoran)

Ed Corcoran is a marketing analyst at Groupon. He grew up in Arkansas, where tornadoes are common, and his wife grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, which has seen a lot of flooding.  

“It makes me feel better to know that Chicago is more protected from extreme weather events than our coastal friends,” he says in an email. “But I wonder if an increase in extreme weather due to global warming will eventually cause an increase migration into Chicago and the rest of the Midwest.”

Malec-McKenna says infrastructure investments will be key in helping Chicago weather these disasters. But Ed says he worries that city and county officials won’t make them a priority.   

“I think it will be increasingly important for us citizens to push our elected leaders,” he says. “These are un-sexy issues that nobody is going to make money off, so it will be easy for politicians to ignore them.”

Monica Eng is a WBEZ Curious City reporter.  Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org

If you’re looking to volunteer or join a group working on climate change issues, here’s a list of ideas from Suzanne Malec-McKenna.

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