Many of mankind's most enduring civilizations thrive in close proximity to rivers and lakes. We have always attempted to harness and tame Nature for our own purposes, yet our ways of life have always been shaped by her rhythms and by her temperaments. For example, in Indochina, wet rice cultivation is possible by channeling rivers into networks of terraces and many live in stilt houses to protect them from periodic flooding. Man's original highway for trade and transportation has been over water and some of history's great clearing houses, such as Venice and New Orleans, were built as close to the water as possible. The former city sits upon ancient pilings set into the marshland hundreds of years ago. In neither city will one encounter very many residences with basements.

There is another great center of transportation, also built upon reclaimed wetlands, that is not readily thought of in this same attribution as Venice, New Orleans or Singapore, not even by the people who live there. Yet Chicago, Illinois is such a place. Founded as a military outpost in the early nineteenth century, Chicago was built upon thousands of acres of marshy wetlands at the south end of Lake Michigan. The area's major tributaries used to be shallow, wandering bodies of water which meandered sluggishly about at a depth rarely exceeding a few inches until the melting snows of winter or the periodically torrential rains of spring and summer turned the entire landscape into a series of quagmires. So impassible were many acres, and so useless the area's waterways, that immigrants were employed into gangs to build the I & M Canal to connect the Chicago River to the Illinois River.

We descendants of these Slovenian, Polish, and Lithuanian workers still live, ten million souls and growing, in the Chicagoland area today. Yet unlike our Italian, Creole, and Malaysian counterparts, we Chicgoans live in a fantasy that we have tamed our landscape with storm sewers, drain tiles and Deep Tunnel Projects. Does your city have more drawbridges than any other city on earth? Did your city reverse the flow of the Chicago River to keep you drinking water source uncontaminated? Is your city sitting on an ancient and abandoned sewer system which was accidentally breached in 1992 causing the entirety of downtown to flood? Hell, no! Go Bears!

Entrenched in our grandiose delusion, we insist that every residence be built with basements, crawlspaces and the like. Yes, the basic fundamentals of hydrology escape us entirely, as every few years or so, torrential rains drench our some 1,300 square miles of bottomland until the soil cannot hold any more ground water. The water table rises above the slabs of our basements until our sump pumps burn out from recycling the water which has nowhere else to go, until hydrostatic pressure blows 1oo pound manhole covers out onto the flooding roads and sewage lines back up into our basements and into our toilets.

Every time that this happens, news crews decend upon the same urban stretch of the Des Plaines River in Cook County to the suburbs of Riverside, Des Plaines and Park Ridge to film house after sandbagged house, the sodden furniture, carpeting and drywall mess sitting on the curbs waiting to be hauled away. I have seen the same news footage over the years and only the models of the cars, half submerged in the driveways, have changed.

With my sump pump still running and my warehouse-duty fan still roaring in the basement, I cannot help but wonder what Eric Burdon and The Animals may have been singing if they had lived here instead of in Newcastle upon Tyne.


In this soggy old heart of the city
Where the rains refuse to stop
People tell me there ain't no use to mop

Now my basement is always damp and musty
And one thing I know is true
The sewers gonna back up before this storm blows through

Yes, I know...

Watch my daddy, he's been filling sandbags
Watching the yard turn into a lake
He's been working and praying that the levies don't break

Oh no, I know it...

It's been raaaaaaining (so hard)
Lightning and hail too, babe
Through the night and the day, now, its been...

Rain! Rain! Rain! Rain!

We gotta get out of Des Plaines!
If its the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of Des Plaines!
Girl, there's a higher ground for me and you

Now the roads are all closed with flood water
Except for Touhy Avenue
Can't go back home for a week or two

Oh, no...

Watch my daddy ripping down the drywall
Furniture sitting out in the mud
Can't afford to live through another flood

Oh no, because...

It's been raaaaaaining (so hard)
With no flood insurance too, babe

Rain! Rain! Rain! Rain!

We gotta get out of Des Plaines!
If its the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of Des Plaines!
Girl, there's a higher ground for me and you


Original lyrics for "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place", made popular by Eric Burdon and The Animals, are credited to Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil

Des Plaines River Hydrology Charts

NOAA page on the record flooding of April 17-18, 2013

Area FEMA considers eligible for flood insurance in Des Plaines (not much)

Ultra cool link to a review of Chicago's Deep Tunnel Project

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