McHenry County braces for 'unprecedented' Fox River flood

Gov. Rauner proclaims McHenry, Lake and Kane counties disaster areas

The rising of the Fox River in McHenry and Lake counties could be historic and will result in major damage, officials from multiple government agencies warned Friday.

Its cresting has set records in Wisconsin and is projected to do the same early next week at the Algonquin tailwater, where the river already was two feet above flood stage Friday evening.

McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks on Friday afternoon declared a state of emergency, and Gov. Bruce Rauner declared McHenry, Lake and Kane counties disaster areas.

The Fox Waterway Agency shut down the entire system Friday morning.

Waterway Executive Director Joe Keller called the flooding – both ongoing and what’s to come – “unprecedented.” The waterway office access road was half underwater when Keller got to work Friday morning – it was six inches underwater by early Friday afternoon. Its website crashed multiple times as people sought information or sought to report flood-related incidents.

“All the computer models in the world can’t tell us what’s going to happen, because this hasn’t happened before,” Keller said.

A statement from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was equally ominous – “Flooding of this magnitude has not been seen before.”

McHenry County Emergency Management Agency Chief Deputy Director Bob Ellsworth warned that the damage likely will exceed that done by the last major floods of 2008 and 2013. Keller said that homes that did not see damage in the previous flood events are now being affected by this one.

“From what we’re seeing, it could go a lot more as far as the damage. We could see some huge impact, based on what we’ve seen in the past,” Ellsworth said.

A flat-screen TV in the room next to the emergency operations center in which Ellsworth talked displayed readings from the four U.S. Geological Survey gauges along the Fox River between Burlington, Wisconsin, and Algonquin. All were in flood, with McHenry County gauges continuing to rise.

The river crested Thursday in New Munster, Wisconsin, at 17.3 feet – more than six feet above flood stage and two feet above its all-time record. The river level hit 6.2 feet late Friday in McHenry at the William G. Stratton-Thomas A. Bolger Lock and Dam in McHenry and continued to rise into moderate flooding depths. Flood stage is four feet at the dam, and major flooding begins at seven feet.

The state lacks the equipment at the McHenry dam to project its future depth and crest, but the IDNR projected Friday afternoon that the crest could reach between 7½ and eight feet – its record crest of 7.62 feet was recorded during the 2013 flood.

The gauge at the Algonquin tailwater measured 11.4 feet as of Friday evening – flood stage is 9½ feet – and is expected to crest at 13 feet late Tuesday afternoon, which would break the record of 12.7 feet set in 2013.

After the Fox River crests in Algonquin, it will remain at major flood stage through the rest of the week – it is expected to remain at more than 12 feet into next weekend.

The locks at both McHenry and Algonquin are fully open in an attempt to mitigate the flooding, but they will not come close to being able to handle the expected maximum, Keller said. Both of those locks can handle 7,500 cubic feet of water a second, but the flow Wisconsin is dealing with has been measured at 13,500 cubic feet a second.

“You see where the problem is. We can only get out 7,500 cubic feet per second, and what’s coming in is almost double that,” Keller said.

McHenry County’s emergency declaration frees up county resources, and is the first step should the county need state and federal disaster relief assistance. The chairmen of both the Kane and Lake county boards did the same before Rauner’s proclamation.

Franks called the declaration a proactive measure and said he hopes it doesn’t need to be used.

“Our county government’s obligation to taxpayers, and my obligation as chairman, is to put our residents’ safety first in all instances, and too many people’s homes, property and livelihoods are at stake not to act proactively,” Franks said. “We want to make sure we have all resources available to act if necessary.”

The county has given out about 95,000 sandbags to local distribution points, Ellsworth said. Another 100,000 sandbags that the county has from the Army Corps of Engineers are being freed up, and another 100,000 are being requested from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, County Administrator Peter Austin said.

More than 225,000 sandbags were distributed during the 2013 Fox River flood, Austin said.

Sand and sandbags can be acquired at the offices of Algonquin, Burton, McHenry and Nunda townships – residents are being asked to call ahead.

Fox River Grove public works employees will be available between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday to assist residents in filling sandbags. Sand and sandbags will be made available at the city water tower on Algonquin Road and the park at the corner of North River Road and Lincoln Avenue. Sandbags after hours can be picked up in the lobby of the police department.

Keller urged people to stay clear of flooded areas – he said the magnitude of this event could mean places may flood that normally don’t, and therefore may attract curious people who could end up in danger.

“Kids see water, they think they can go play, and that’s how a lot of life gets put in jeopardy,” Keller said.

The next chances for rain in McHenry County are Saturday night and Tuesday night, according to the National Weather Service.

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