You Can't Be Neutral in a Flooding House

Summer rains wreaked havoc in Cicero, Illinois—and unleashed a movement demanding change.

Ankur Singh

Patricia Medina cleans her flood-damaged apartment on July 3, 2023, after storms battered Cicero, Ill., that summer. STACEY WESCOTT/CHICAGO TRIBUNE / TN

CICERO, ILL. — A crowd swells outside an auditorium one summer evening in 2023, trying to enter a special town hall meeting. The air fills with chants: Where’s our money?” and El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (“The people, united, will never be defeated”). Soon, police inform the hundreds outside that no one else is allowed in.

It felt apt: We wanted answers about why our city was so dysfunctional, and the city couldn’t even host a proper meeting.

I’m a journalist and also a Cicero resident, and I was there because I, too, was angry. Howard Zinn famously said you can’t be neutral on a moving train; it’s also difficult in a flooded house.

Two weeks prior, on July 2, massive floods had devastated Cicero, a working-class Black and brown suburb on the west side of Chicago. Heavy rain submerged vehicles as it turned roads into rivers. Basements flooded. Power lines were knocked out. Officials estimated nearly $100 million in damage.

Viral videos show residents kayaking down streets and fishing off porches, and memes joked that Cicero had just become lakefront property. Behind the humor was weariness and loss. My own home was in shambles: Four feet of water poured into my basement and destroyed my water heater, furnace, washer, dryer and countless irreplaceable belongings.

It was already a cruel summer, filled with smoke from Canadian wildfires. More often, this air carries harmful pollutants from nearby industry, such as the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant. In August, record temperatures caused the air conditioners at local schools and nursing homes to malfunction.

According to community organizers, the needs of industry are prioritized over the needs of residents.

Cicero floods nearly every year. My home has flooded four times in the two years I’ve owned it. The flooding is partly the result of underinvestment in local infrastructure: As the town engineer explained at a July 2023 board meeting, the sewer system (designed decades ago) simply cannot handle 9 inches of rain in six hours — the kind of weather event that climate-change models predict will only become more common here.

Another problem is Cicero’s lack of green space. The Chicago Region Trees Initiative found the town has only 12% tree canopy, much less than whiter, wealthier Chicago suburbs like Oak Park (25%) and River Forest (56%). Studies show green space and trees can cool temperatures by several degrees, mitigate air pollution, alleviate stress and reduce flooding.

Warehouses, factories and railyards cover nearly half of Cicero’s land area. That’s because, according to community organizers like Leslie Cortez, the needs of industry are prioritized over the needs of residents.

Flooding is only one consequence. A 2018 Virginia Tech study found one in three Cicero homes had concerning levels of lead in their tap water. Air quality sensors installed by local news outlet Cicero Independiente and news outlet MuckRock found the town has much worse” air quality than surrounding neighborhoods, with some of the highest levels of particulate pollution in the Chicago region. That pollution can cause premature death, heart attacks, asthma and other adverse outcomes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Cicero is a town infamous for corruption since the days of Al Capone, and some public officials have come under scrutiny for seeming to look after themselves more than residents. Former Town President Betty Loren-Maltese, for example, was arrested by federal officials in 2001 for an insurance scheme that stole $12 million from the town. Current President Larry Dominick has had his own share of controversies, from sexual harassment accusations to allegations of nepotism and awarding government contracts to friends.

The city’s spokesman did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

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As I stood outside the town hall with the crowd, I felt overwhelmed, but I stayed. When the meeting ended, we handed out our list of demands, including to Dominick. Among them: improve sewer infrastructure and invest in green space, trees, community gardens and native plants.

For the next several weeks, we spoke with journalists, attended board meetings, wrote letters to elected officials and gathered more than 1,000 signatures for a petition. We even marched on Dominick’s house. We also helped residents fill out applications to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and submit complaints to the EPA.

Our pressure is starting to work. On August 8, the town met one of our key demands and commissioned a civil engineering firm to create an infrastructure plan to better manage stormwater and prevent flooding. The town also established a stormwater advisory board and even began distributing free trees to residents. One local representative introduced a bill in the Illinois legislature that, if passed, will provide additional disaster relief funds to Illinois residents.

As for me, rain used to bring joy. It was an excuse to stay inside with a blanket, a good book and a warm cup of chai. It meant my garden would thrive. Now, the sight of a single dark cloud makes my heart race.

But disasters, I’ve learned, also bring people together. The July rain, it seems, didn’t just flood our streets. It broke the dam and released a forceful movement that can no longer be contained.

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Ankur Singh is a Cicero-based, Chicago-adjacent freelance journalist and organizer.

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