When Kindy Kruller purchased her Portage Park home more than six years ago, she didn’t think it could flood.
There was no record of previous flooding at the property, Kruller said. Both the home inspector and realtor assured her that even if flooding was a risk, there were protections in place to prevent it from happening.
But in the last year-and-a-half, water has seeped into Kruller’s basement four times, including six inches after a record-setting rainstorm in early July.
Now, when the basement floods, Kruller’s family has a routine down pat. “We have fans. We have dehumidifiers. We have a submersible pump. We have our hoses in place,” she said.
But it’s a lot to deal with each time. Sometimes it can take the family from six to 10 hours to finish the cleaning, drying and sanitizing that’s needed after the flooding, Kruller said. “It’s really overwhelming, honestly.”
If Kruller lived in an area designated as a high-risk flood zone by the federal government, she would have been notified about her home’s flood risk when she bought it.
But like most Chicagoans, she doesn’t.
Less than 1% of properties in Chicago are in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) high-risk flood zone, where homeowners are required to purchase flood insurance, if they have a federally backed mortgage.
FEMA’s flood maps are the primary public tool used to communicate flood risk. The maps show high-risk areas susceptible to a 100-year flood — a flood with a 1% chance of happening in any given year.
But the FEMA maps paint an incomplete picture of where flooding can occur and leave many in the dark about their flood risk, according to newly updated research from the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that quantifies climate risk.
The nonprofit’s flood model, which includes more inputs than FEMA’s maps, finds Cook County ranks second among all counties in the nation for the number of properties with significant flood risk that are not shown on FEMA’s maps.
Roughly 172,000 properties in Cook County have a high risk of flooding — about eight times more than what FEMA’s maps show, according to First Street’s assessment. In the city of Chicago, roughly 79,000 properties are at high risk, according to First Street. That’s more than 50 times higher than the number of high-risk Chicago properties indicated in FEMA’s maps.
“There’s all this unknown risk that exists across the country that people just don’t know about because it’s not captured in the federal-facing flood maps,” said Jeremy Porter, head of climate implications research at First Street Foundation.
Chicago’s urban flooding
Experts said there are three main types of flood risk: when land is submerged by seawater, known as coastal flooding; when rivers overflow their banks, known as riverine flooding; and pluvial flooding, when heavy rainfall events cause flooding.
According to the First Street Foundation, FEMA underestimates flood risk because its maps only focus on coastal and riverine flooding but not pluvial flood risk — the type that most impacts an inland urban area with miles of impermeable concrete, like Chicago.
First Street’s flood model is a hydraulic model that includes all three types of flooding, and takes into account factors such as ground elevation and climate change. Porter said the First Street model likely underestimates the true toll of flooding in the Chicago area, because it only models above ground flooding and not basement flooding or sewer system capacity.
In an emailed statement, FEMA said its flood maps use “different data and analysis to provide views of flood risk” from First Street’s flood model, and that they “do not represent all flood hazards.” Rather, they’re designed to show minimum standards for floodplain management and to identify the highest-risk areas for flood insurance.
Despite being made for a very specific purpose, FEMA’s maps have unintentionally become a flood risk communication tool for the public.
“They’ve become the default property-level metric for flood risk in the absence of anything else that’s publically available,” said Porter. “They’ve actually been used for something they were never intended to be used for.”
“FEMA flood risk maps do not have anything to do with combined sewer urban flooding that is nowhere near a river or body of water,” said Catherine O’Connor, director of engineering at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD).
O’Connor said that’s the type of urban flooding that occurred when the sewer system was overwhelmed by a heavy rainstorm in early July, which caused a record number of Chicagoans to report flooded basements.
O’Connor said two inches of rain in two hours could overwhelm the sewer system and cause water to back up into basements. According to estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a rainstorm of that magnitude has a 20% chance of occurring in any given year for the Chicago area.
“That is the reality,” said O’Connor.
Very few are insured against flooding
Since 2019, there have been roughly 38,000 reports of flooded basements to 311, the city’s non-emergency helpline, according to a WBEZ analysis. More than half of them came from majority-Black community areas. The communities with the most reports since 2019 were Austin, Portage Park, Roseland and West Garfield Park.
Many of those residents have likely shouldered most of the costs of recovery themselves because very few people have insurance that covers flooding, especially basement flooding. Without insurance, recovering after a flood can cost some upwards of tens of thousands of dollars.A WBEZ analysis finds that as of June 30, just over 1,000 homes in Chicago have flood insurance policies through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). In all of Cook County, it’s about 12,000 homes. The NFIP is the predominant type of flood insurance purchased nationally, according to estimates from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.
There are a lot of reasons people don’t have flood insurance, said Cyatharine Alias, manager of community infrastructure and resilience at the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
For one, residents might just be unaware that flooding can happen.
“You assume that the sewer system can handle it,” Alias said. “Because these systems were built with engineers and all these calculations.”
Even with an awareness of flood risk, people may be hesitant to purchase flood insurance because they didn’t know about the NFIP, they aren’t sure what’s covered, or it’s just too costly, Alias said.
Many might mistakenly assume their homeowners insurance covers it.
“Sadly, a lot of people think that if they have homeowners insurance they think they’re protected against flood,” said Scott Holeman, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute, an insurance education nonprofit.
Standard homeowners insurance does not cover flooding, unless they have a specific flood policy, Holeman said.
As climate change brings heavier rains that will continue to cause urban flooding in the Chicago area, more community awareness about flood risk, navigating insurance and how to respond when it does flood is needed, Alias said.
“There’s so much more space for community conversation so that we can create community support networks and mutual aid groups to respond to the flooding issues,” Alias said.
For more information about the National Flood Insurance Program, click here. NFIP insurance is purchased through partnering insurance companies and covers up to $250,000 for building-related replacement costs and up to $100,000 for content replacement costs.
Any renters or homeowners who live in Cook County can purchase insurance through the NFIP. The average NFIP premium in Chicago is $670 annually, according to a FEMA spokesperson.
Standard NFIP coverage for basements is much more limited and only covers specific items and cleanup costs but not personal property like couches or TVs, or basement improvements. Check here for what it covers.
Amy Qin is WBEZ’s data reporter. Jessica Alvarado Gamez and Claire Kurgan contributed to this report.