Hope Floats in South Elmhurst After Floods
After two devastating storms, family remains unsinkable in the face of heartbreak.
A wedding photo, children's artwork and a hope chest are about all that's left from Kristin and Charlie Morrow's basement on Washington Street.
And they're not really sure why the weighty hope chest, made even heavier because it was full of water, survived. Charlie said he can't lift it empty and dry, "but somehow I carried it up the stairs. It was my grandmother's chest. It meant something to us."
"We call it super-human flood strength," said Kristin, seated at the family's dining room table.
The Morrows do have super-human flood strength, but it's not measured by what Charlie can lift. They're pretty sure they got the worst damage of any home in Elmhurst—10 feet of water in the basement—during the severe flooding that hit the area June 23. And then, like a one-two punch, they got hit again exactly one month later, on July 23 and 24. Both times the basement filled to the ceiling with water.
With about $100,000 in damage, no flood insurance and the solution to their problem in the hands of the city of Elmhurst, it's super-human flood strength that keeps them going.
Kristin and Charlie were married seven years ago last month. They eventually outgrew their town home in Forest Park after the birth of their second daughter, Parker, who is now almost 2. Big sister Addie is 4.
So they moved to their Elmhurst "dream home," a home not much older than their marriage, just about one year ago.
"Kristin used to say that the basement was the selling point," Charlie said.
The finished basement had everything they could want—a playroom for their girls, a bedroom and bath for Kristin's parents when they came to visit from New York. It was easy.
"Other people might say it doesn't take much to finish a basement," Charlie said. "We don't have that eye. For us, it was a big selling point—just move in."
"We're not rehabbers," Kristin added.
They had heard that Elmhurst had a lot of power outages, but nothing about flooding. So they moved in and began to build their lives here.
"We thought it would be our forever house," Kristin said.
Like the dam gave way
On June 23, the family was enjoying a birthday dinner at Portillo's with the kids, their cousins and extended family. It started to rain—hard. The lights began to flicker in the restaurant.
The Morrows were supposed to go to the in-laws' house to continue the birthday party, but when they started to drive, they realized many streets were impassable.
"We tried to get home and we couldn't get on our road, so we parked our van at the end of the street," Charlie said. "Kristin went with our nephews (and Addie), and I took Parker home.
"I'm walking up to our house, and the water's deep."
The neighbors were home, standing outside and looking at Charlie as if to say, "Oh my God, you guys are in trouble," he said.
"Somebody came over and took Parker, and I went in the house. I opened up the front door and I could just hear a waterfall," Charlie said.
As he got closer to the basement door, the noise got louder. The pressure from the water outside had broken a basement window and the water was rushing in.
"I go in, and at that time, it was probably 2 feet deep," he said.
"It kept pouring in and pouring in. And our back yard was a lake," he said. He grabbed the hope chest and a couple other items.
Thirty minutes later the water was up to his shoulders.
The power never went out that day, and Charlie doesn't like to think about what could have happened to him, being in the water with a live electrical panel.
His mind swirled with thoughts of, "What happens now?"
"I didn't know anything," he said. "You're thinking, 'Why doesn't the water go away?' I didn't know how to get the water out of there. Our friends came over, friends of friends started coming over with pumps. But you have these little ½-horsepower pumps, and there's still a lake around our house. Where are we going to dump that water?"
The water outside didn't drain for some time. Charlie went to Home Depot, rented a large pump and ran it all night. The next day, the true magnitude of the disaster set in.
"There were jigsaw puzzle pieces in the ceiling," Kristin said. "The insulation was everywhere, the kids' toys were all in different rooms. The couch was in a different room. Everything just floated. We knew nothing down there could be saved. That was brutal."
The force of the water behind the doors caused them to buckle and fold in half. Plastic bins full of holiday ornaments had tipped over and filled with water. Some $5,000 worth of Kristin's teaching supplies were ruined, her wedding dress, destroyed. The filth and stench of sewage, which had bubbled up through the shower drain, permeated everything.
They ripped out walls and ceilings. They replaced the furnace, water heater and sump pump. They called experts, who warned of mold. Then Charlie took matters into his own hands, installing glass-block basement windows and building walls around each window well. He knew how high the water could go, so he doubled the height of the walls.
"So then I'd have some peace of mind," he thought.
What he failed to realize was that no wall could be high enough to protect their home the next time around.
"The second time around was uniquely different," he said.
They left by boat
The rain came harder in July—about 4 or 5 inches more than in June, in a very short period of time. As 3 ½ feet of water stayed in the street for seven hours, the water continuously poured over the Morrow's foundation. All the neighbors' basements filled with water that day, Charlie said.
First, the power went out. But Charlie had bought a gas-powered generator and put it on the driveway to power the sump pump and the refrigerator. He never went to bed that night. Instead he listened from the living room sofa to make sure the generator didn't run out of gas.
Then, at about 1:20 in the morning, his cell phone rang.
"It was a neighbor, and he said, 'you know your generator is about to be underwater,' " he said. "So I put it up on the front porch here to allow for 4 more inches.
"The front door had to stay open, so the carbon monoxide detectors started going off."
Firemen came and said they had to evacuate the house, but Kristin and Charlie knew they couldn't leave. So again, the neighbors stepped in.
"Talk about the kindness of neighbors, who had only known us since September," Kristin said. "They just took our kids into their beds and let them sleep there, then came over and worked like a dog helping us.
"The next day, the girls and I left (the neighborhood) by boat. Charlie stayed behind."
At about 11 a.m. July 24, the water wasn't receding at all, Charlie said, and the forecast was for more rain. The basement was already full.
"The firemen said if this storm comes, it's going to fill your first floor. If we get 3 more inches of rain, there's going to be 3 feet of water," he said.
Again with the help of friends and neighbors, Charlie moved every stick of furniture, including an oversized china cabinet, from his first floor up to the second floor.
Thankfully, that storm never came.
"If it would have rained again, the kitchen, everything, would have been totally done," Charlie said.
'It's your problem, but it's our life'
The Morrows have called in the experts.
"We've had builders, expert waterproofers, and they are saying, 'We'd like your business, but there's truly nothing we can do. You put the glass block in, you put up these walls—your street doesn't drain. That's it.' "
Meetings are the immediate course of action the city is taking now. And the Morrows have attended just about every one. On Aug. 30, the couple's wedding anniversary, Kristin spoke at a City Council meeting and stayed until late in the evening.
"When they're deciding where to put these funds, I never want them to forget our faces, and the people on our street," she said. "We're afraid to leave our house. That's just no way to live."
"My verdict is still out on whether any of these meetings are useful or not," Charlie said. "If you have one, I'll go, but I haven't seen anything yet."
The Morrows live in the 6th Ward. Aldermen Steve Morley and Jim Kennedy held a 6th Ward meeting at Community Bank of Elmhurst. It rained that night.
"There was a thunderstorm warning that night," Charlie said. "I'm exhausted, I come home, I can't fall asleep. I'm just going to sit here and ride it out watching the stupid Weather Channel."
Any time it rains, there's a tension in the house, Kristin said.
"Just something comes over us," she said. "There's an underlying crabbiness, panic. I don't think Charlie has slept a full night since this happened."
The city really has only a few functions, Charlie said.
"Safety, water, sewage, schools," he said. "(Flood-prevention) is one of those.
"This whole street is just hat-in-hand, humbly saying, 'We can't sleep right now. This is why we pay our taxes. There's nothing we can do. It's your problem, but it's our life.' "
Kristin is not interested in learning any more about the functions of the sanitary system in Elmhurst.
"When I heard about these four-hour workshops with a civil engineer—I frankly don't want to learn any more about sewers and drainage. I'm a mom. I'm a former kindergarten teacher. That's not my department."
Their house is not saleable. It's become their "cross to bear," they said.
Elmhurst is now known as a town that floods, Charlie said.
"It's negatively affected everybody," he said. "I just hope everybody stays interested in fixing this problem."