The Chicago Flood of 1992

I wrote this shortly after the Great Chicago Flood.


On Monday, April 13, 1992, the long-forgotten tunnels under downtown Chicago were flooded, and the basements of many buildings as well. The effects lasted for weeks.

These were freight tunnels, built a century ago for delivering freight to downtown buildings. They are dark, with low ceilings, and even when constructed were not suitable for pedestrian traffic. They fell into disuse as the use of trucks for deliveries became widespread, and were forgotten. Newer buildings were never directly connected to the system, although basement links made some of them vulnerable during this crisis.

Mia and I were there. At that time we both worked for big banks downtown. Early in the morning we heard about some flooding, but the news reports indicated it was north of where our offices were located. As I left a meeting in the main bank building, about 10 AM, there was a loudspeaker announcement of a possible loss of power! When I got back to my own building a little later I was told not to use the elevator. So I walked up 19 floors, passing a lot of people going the other way, and retrieved my briefcase. I also got a message from Mia saying she was being sent home, and an official message saying I was to report to one of the cafeterias and wait until management decided what to do with us. Mia joined me, and we waited there while my bosses dithered. The lights flickered and we soon heard that the Unisys mainframes in the building had crashed, though the IBM systems stayed up.

About 1 PM we were finally told we could go. We feared public transit would be jammed (like all sensible people, we never drove into downtown Chicago unless absolutely necessary), so we started walking north. We walked four miles, stopping for a while at a science fiction bookstore on Belmont. The owner, a friend of ours, said business was good; a lot of people were stopping by after leaving work early. We then retrieved our car, which as part of our normal routine was parked nearby–it was close to the Belmont train stop. After that we picked up our kids at day-care and drove home to Evanston.

I was able to go back to work the next day, but Mia was out the entire week, and after that she was moved to temporary offices. Her building was among the many that did not reopen for weeks.

Afterwards the subway trains were rerouted for a while onto the elevated tracks, slowing down everything. When a train pulled into a station it was immediately jammed with people. The conductors tried to discourage this, saying “Clear all the doors. There is another train three or four minutes behind”. This had no effect. Veteran riders of the Chicago Transit Authority have heard this many times, and it has about the credibility of “Your check is in the mail” or “Of course I will respect you in the morning.” Driving downtown was even less of an option than usual–there was a parking ban.

This began on April 13, and a lot of accountants were locked out of their offices for some time afterwards. So the IRS granted a special dispensation: Anybody whose tax forms could not be completed because of the flood was allowed to file late without penalty, simply by writing “Chicago Flood” on the form.

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