Cheryl Watson grew up in a historic bungalow in the Chatham neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. She moved back to the same home decades later to take care of her aged parents, and she lives there even now while nearing retirement herself. The neighborhood continually changes around her, yet one thing has remained constant: When the rain falls, that home she loves starts to flood.
“As soon as I could walk, I can remember my parents telling me to look down the basement steps and see how high the water was,” Cheryl said. And it wasn’t just water, it was raw sewage too: smelly, hazardous material that brought bugs and mold into their personal space, covered their toys and their memories. “We had to scramble, put our little boots on, and pick up things that were floating in the mess,” she said.
But her family loved the community where they lived. In the 1950s, Cheryl said, Chatham was a jewel of Chicago and the African American community. Her parents worked for years to afford a home there, in a place people wanted to be.
Over the decades Cheryl saw violence there increase. She watched homes and businesses sit empty, and the effects of disinvestment played out on streets all around her. And over those same years, she has worked hard to keep her home above water, literally.
“Every year, multiple times a year,” she said. “From March until October you can’t relax. You just listen to the weather reports and try to tell how bad it’s going to be this time.”
In the 1990s she installed a flood control system at her own expense to keep the sewage water out of her home. She installed rain barrels to divert water to her garden. She made modifications to her home’s gutters and drainage systems, but it’s still not enough.
Neighborhoods like Cheryl’s light up on CMAP’s Urban Flood Susceptibility Index because they were built before modern stormwater standards and have lots of hard surfaces that prevent rainwater from soaking into the ground. The sewers can quickly get overwhelmed.
In recent years, Cheryl went through the Chicago Conservation Corps sustainability education program to learn more about climate change that was causing more frequent and intense storms and how to advocate for her community. She’s gone to block club meetings to educate her neighbors and worked with the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s RainReady initiative to help create a plan for Chatham.
The decision to stay or leave a home and neighborhood she loves is a calculation Cheryl is weighing for her own future. And, the years of cleanup and destruction have taken a toll on her emotionally. “It’s like a wound to your spirit,” she said. “You bought a house, you think you made the right decision, but then it’s like a slap in the face.”
But she’s not looking for a quick fix. As a former computer scientist and teacher, she says the complex issues of flooding don’t have simple solutions.
“We need a deeper, more analytical approach. Patch and go is not going to work. It’s time. It’s way past time to deal with this flooding situation,” she said. “People can’t afford it, but at the same time the people here can’t afford to move away either. I want to see changes in the neighborhood so it can get back to its original state where it was clean and healthy, the people were safe, and the values of the homes were higher."