CHICAGO – A rainstorm pummeling the Chicago area ripped open a sinkhole Thursday that swallowed three cars, injuring one driver badly enough that he had to be hospitalized. Blasts of torrential rain and widespread flooding forced authorities to shut segments of major expressways, and hundreds of flights were scrapped.
Schools were closed, commuter trains slowed to a crawl and a local emergency agency to the north, in Lake County, drafted jail inmates to fill sandbags. Swaths of central Illinois were also affected as authorities predicted record flood stages, and Gov. Pat Quinn declared an emergency.
The gaping sinkhole opened up a residential street on Chicago's South Side just before 5:30 a.m. after a cast iron water main dating back to 1915 broke during the massive storm. The hole spanned the entire width of the road and chewed up grassy areas abutting the sidewalk. Two of the cars that disappeared inside had been parked, but a third was being driven when the road buckled and caved in. Only the front-end of one of the vehicles could be seen peeking up along the edge of the chasm.
The driver was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital with non-life threatening injuries, said Chicago Police Department spokesman Mike Sullivan.
Tom LaPorte, a spokesman for the city's water department, said the force of the heavy rain or the movement and weight of the rain-soaked ground could have caused the pipe to crack open.
In the street outside the Willis Tower, an overwhelmed sewer system sent water gushing geyser-like from manholes with such force it rattled the heavy covers.
"The water will come out any way it can," LaPorte said. He said there have been hundreds of reports of flooded basements.
Workers were furiously filling sandbags and putting up barricades along the north branch of the Chicago River in the Albany Park neighborhood in the hopes of keeping the river from rising over its banks, LaPorte said.
Authorities opened locks on the river to allow the storm-swollen waterway to rush out into Lake Michigan, a step that is not uncommon during storms.
The river was diverted away from the lake more than a century ago to keep pollution out of the lake, the source of the city's drinking water. But workers had to "re-reverse" the flow because huge tunnels and reservoirs designed to hold storm water were full or near capacity, said Metropolitan Water Reclamation District spokeswoman Allison Fore.
Other parts of northern Illinois and central parts of the state also saw storm damage, prompting prompted Quinn to issue an emergency declaration. That allowed the state to access federal resources, including generators, pump systems sandbags and additional funds.
Across Illinois, authorities were expecting record flood stages.
"Based on the forecasting right now, we expect to meet and exceed historic flood levels," said Jonathon Monken, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. He added that officials expect "in excess of what we saw in Chicago in 1986 and 1987; the Mississippi, we expect it to be in excess of what we saw in 2008, all of which were very significant floods."
The rain, combined with strong winds, downed power lines, flooded homes and toppled big-rigs across central Illinois.
In Peoria, basement walls in some homes collapsed. Authorities had to rescue stranded people by boat during an evacuation of parts of Roanoke where homes were inundated by water. The Red Cross opened a shelter there and others in Woodford and LaSalle counties.
In Gibson City, winds blew down a horse barn, killing one horse.
On roadways throughout the Chicago area, vehicles were stalled in standing water that was nearly up to car windshields in some places. On the Edens Expressway, flooding prompted the Illinois Department of Transportation to divert traffic onto other roads.
Several expressways have been at least partially closed, including the Eisenhower northbound lanes on the city's North Side. Some schools had to cancel classes because buses were unable to maneuver through flooded streets.
Around 550 flights in and out of O'Hare International Airport were canceled, according to the aviation tracking website FlightAware.com.
Thursday' storm drenched the airport with more than 5 inches of rain. The National Weather Service said another band of storms could unload another 2 inches in the afternoon.
"We will have another line of strong thunderstorms going through south of the Chicago area, and behind that there is another area of widespread rain that will move through the area," meteorologist Andrew Crein said.
Trains were delayed on most of the 11 Metra commuter rail lines linking the city and its suburbs because of flooding near tracks and stations, spokesman Tom Miller said. Some lines were brought to a standstill by the snarl of lined-up trains waiting to get into stations.
A lightning strike also caused a power outage that forced track switches to be made manually on one of the lines running north out of the city, causing delays.
Suburban DuPage County shut down all government buildings because of flooding, according to the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights.
Associated Press writers Don Babwin and Tammy Webber in Chicago, David Mercer in Champaign and Regina Garcia Cano in Springfield contributed to this report.