Chicago Flood

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The Chicago Flood occurred on April 13, 1992, when the damaged wall of a utility tunnel beneath the Chicago River opened into a breach which flooded basements and underground facilities throughout the Chicago Loop with an estimated 250 million gallons of water.[1]



Rehabilitation work on the Kinzie Street Bridge crossing the Chicago River required new pilings. Unbeknownst to work crews aboard a barge operated by the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company, beneath the river was an abandoned Chicago Tunnel Company tunnel that had been used in the early twentieth century to transport coal and goods. One of the pilings on the east bank was driven into the bottom of the river alongside the north wall of the old tunnel. Although the piling did not actually punch through the tunnel wall, it caused pressure that cracked the wall, and mud began to ooze in. After some weeks, all the soft mud had passed, opening a leak.

Discovery of the leak

A telecommunications worker inspecting a cable running through the tunnel discovered the leak while it was still passing mud and forwarded a videotape to the city, which did not see anything serious and began a bid process to repair the tunnel. The CTC tunnels were never formally a public responsibility, as most of them had been dug clandestinely, many violated private property[citation needed], and the collapse of the operator had failed to resolve ownership and maintenance responsibilities. Meanwhile the mud continued to push through until the river was able to pour in unabated, creating an unmistakable emergency.


The water flooded into the basements of several Loop office buildings and retail stores and an underground shopping district. The city quickly evacuated the Loop and financial district in fear that electrical wires could short out. Electrical power and natural gas went down or were shut off as a precaution in much of the area. Trading at both the Chicago Board of Trade Building and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange ended in mid-morning as water seeped into their basements. At its height, some buildings had 40 feet (12 m) of water in their lower levels. However, at the street level there was no water to be seen, as it was all underground.

When fish were found in the water, it became more clear what the problem was. Where the subways built in the 1940s had passed through areas with the freight tunnels, the freight tunnels were sealed off with concrete. At least one of these walls contained a one foot-by-two foot crack, and water began to fill the subways as well. The public notification of the source of the leak also makes for an interesting story. One of the all-news radio stations had the information before the city could pinpoint the source. At about dawn, WMAQ radio began reporting that crews were being dispatched to some downtown buildings on reports of flooding.

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