WARRENVILLE – When heavy rains struck the western suburbs more than four years ago, Mark Kohlmann saw a good portion of Bower Elementary School submerged in water.
The newer part of the school was built higher than the original building in 1986, so it was spared the flooding, Kohlmann said. But the older sections of the school sustained considerable damage once the West Branch DuPage River breached the berm, he said.
“On Sept. 15, 2008, we got hit with the rains from Hurricane Ike,” said Kohlmann, principal of Bower Elementary School in Warrenville. “We had a berm around the school, and we've never been flooded. But the flood of 2008 came about half a foot above the berm, so the older part of the school got about a foot-and-a-half of water.
“The music and art rooms are in the basement, and they got flooded. We have our gym and lunchrooms down there as well as our fifth-grade classrooms,” Kohlmann said. “We closed down the school for a week and walled off the flooded areas. The water receded the next day, but the damage was already done. We brought the students to the higher part of the building and made due as best we could. … We did not get back into the other part of the school until April of the following year.”
The storm that hit the Chicago area two weeks ago seemed about as strong as the one in 2008, but this time Bower was spared the problems it previously experienced. After the flood of 2008, Community Unit School District 200 partnered with DuPage County to make improvements that kept the floodwaters away from the building.
The school property is adjacent to the West Branch DuPage River. But in his six years as principal and years before that at the school as a teacher, Kohlmann has never seen the building become flooded, he said.
The area around the school was designated a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A facility operated in West Chicago by the Kerr-McGee Chemical Corporation from 1932 to 1973 contaminated the region with radioactive thorium waste material, according to information from the USEPA.
During cleanup operations along the West Branch DuPage River last year, the berm was repaired. But officials with Community Unit School District 200 and DuPage County decided to increase the height of the berm at Bower three-and-a-half feet and enhance its status to that of a levee, Kohlmann said. And now there also are pumping stations that push floodwater back into the river, he said.
“We're very pleased with how the flood control improvement project at Bower Elementary School protected the school from flooding during the storm event two weeks ago,” said DuPage County Board member Jim Zay, chairman of the Stormwater Management Planning Committee. “We worked closely with Bower Elementary and Community Unit School District 200 to restore the berm as well as construct additional enhancements to further protect the school.
“The project was designed to reduce the risk of flooding and associated damages for Bower, and the berm passed its first significant test,” Zay said. “The school remained dry despite West Branch DuPage River elevations of more than nine feet above normal.”
School officials were recently told that had the berm remained at its former height, the river would have breached the berm just like it did in 2008, Kohlmann said. And the headaches that members of the Bower staff had to endure following the 2008 flood were numerous, he said.
“We lost all the furniture and carpeting from the rooms downstairs,” Kohlmann said.
“One room that was affected was the reading room, and there were numerous books that had to be thrown away. And our gym had a wood floor, so that was severely damaged.
“I believe the improvements made cost about $200,000 — and it was money well spent. The systems worked the way they were supposed to work,” Kohlmann said. “We did get some water on our side of the berm. But once the water reached a certain height, the pumps forced the water back into the river. … We dodged a bullet this time!”