It figures to be a long night for Lauren Tipton. Her business sits on South Clark Street in Utica and she saw no choice but evacuate after learning the Illinois River is headed for its fastest-ever flood.
“They told us to get out,” Tipton said, “so we got out.”
Tipton owns Laurel Lu’s CBD Co. and shares space with Koala T. Glass, both located in the former Stonehead building that has been swamped in previous Utica floods, including two record-setters in 2008 and 2013. This year’s event is expected to trail both those floods, but not by much.
“We just opened in September,” Tipton shrugged helplessly. “Between COVID-19 and this, it’s been tough.”
Other Utica business owners paused only briefly to talk in between loading flat beds and moving fans full of inventory. Most reported beginning after dinner time Monday, barely an hour after the surprise announcement that the village imposed a voluntary evacuation after the river surged faster than in memory.
Stonehead’s owners shrewdly moved a few yards back from Route 178 and into a larger building constructed 4.5 feet higher than their old digs. Co-owner Keith Arwood cleared his parking lot of garbage cans and other unsecured items but otherwise rested comfortably in the knowledge that this time he, a veteran of many evacuations, can stay put this time.
“It’s no fun, but that’s the way things are,” Arwood said, looking sympathetically at neighboring business owners packing their inventory.
Roxie Neurohr is among those evacuating for the first time. Neurohr owns Roxie’s Sweet Confections and has endured several near-misses since opening of March 2016, most notably last May when the river came 14 feet above flood stage and encroached on neighboring businesses but missed hers. This year’s event will pass that flood by 2 feet and that puts Roxie’s right in the line of fire.
“It’s going to take most of the night,” Neurohr said as she hefted boxes into a waiting van.
Jill Lee owns Two Girls and a Cupcake and she, too, was overseeing the hasty emptying of her business. Lee has also weathered past floods but this time she was angry.
“I don’t usually stick around this long,” Lee said. “I evacuate five days early.”
Once upon a time Utica business owners did, in fact, have days to empty their shelves and clear their floors. Not this year, however. The Illinois River rose so abruptly the village had mere hours to alert residents and business owners to make ready for flooding at the village’s south end.
As recently as noon Monday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed an online projection showing the river would crest late Tuesday or early Wednesday at 13 feet above flood stage. That would have been nearly 5 feet below the 2013 record and 2 feet below the known threshold where water encroaches into village limits.
The projection didn’t hold, however. The Corps contacted Mayor David Stewart to report server problems that rendered the midday projection obsolete and unreliable. Worse, the new projection showed a crest within 2 feet off the record.
Stewart and village trustees flew into action and convened for an emergency meeting, during which Stewart was awarded emergency powers and the board recommended voluntary evacuation.
As for the swift rise of the river, village engineer Kevin Heitz said the explanation was no mystery. A record 4 inches fell Thursday in Chicago and the surrounding region took another 2-4 inches over the weekend.
“All that water has to go somewhere,” Heitz said. “A lot of it comes here.”
Nevertheless, the swiftness of the event caught village officials off guard. Stewart disclosed the revised projections showing a Tuesday night crest at 16 feet above flood stage, on pace for the third-worst flood to strike the village – assuming these projections hold.
“This rise is expected to happen faster than it ever has in the past,” Stewart said.
Floods, however, seem lately to come to Utica without much warning. Suburban development has altered the floodplain and spring deluges have created flash-flood conditions along a river that used to ebb and flow more steadily.
Stewart wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a mandatory evacuation and warned that Route 178 could be closed as early as daybreak Tuesday.