Is it Time to Modify the Lakefront Again?

Some stretches of Lake Shore Drive have long been plagued by the winds of Lake Michigan

From the day the first French explorers arrived in what would become Chicago, human beings have tried to mold Lake Michigan into a more user-friendly body of water.

Grant and Millennium Parks sit in what used to be open water, filled in a hundred years ago by city fathers anxious to give Chicago a magnificent front yard. And up and down the lakefront, repeated modifications have been made in an effort to corral the lake's fury.

In the aftermath of last week's blizzard debacle on Lake Shore Drive, Illinois' two U.S. Senators are wondering if it may be time to nip and tuck the lakefront again.

"The blizzard that hit last week with 20 and 25 foot waves could have swamped Lake Shore Drive," Durbin said. "Imagine that! As bad as it was, it could have been worse."

Durbin and Senator Mark Kirk have written the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asking them to study what modifications might be made to keep the lake from encroaching on the Drive in violent weather. While last week's problems on the roadway were almost entirely snow-related, the Drive has been shut down numerous times in the past when wind-whipped waves crashed over seawalls, flooding the northbound lanes.

"It could have been catastrophic," Durbin said. "When you look at the potential here, let's look ahead. You don’t solve this problem a week ahead of time."

The Corps says it would welcome the challenge.

"We would look and seek the best engineering solution that will at least reduce risk to a certain level,” says Colonel Vincent Quarles, Commander of the Corps of Engineers’ Chicago District. “We have looked in the past with the city at potential solutions that we would do there, and we will gladly partner with the city, our congressional leaders, and with the region, to do all we can within the Corps’ capabilities.”

Indeed, the Corps and City of Chicago embarked on a massive rehab of over 20 eroded lakefront areas in 1996, a project just reaching completion which topped over $350 million. Some of that work included new landfill to provide a greater buffer between Lakeshore Drive and the waters of Lake Michigan. None of the projects addressed the area where motorists became trapped Tuesday night.

Quarles said he and his Army colleagues would love to tackle the problem.

"Mother nature throws a lot at us," he said. "We’re looking first to see, was there any overtopping of water from the lake in that area?

"The Corps has certain core competencies and working at overtopping and keeping that from getting on Lake Shore Drive is what we do every day," said Quarles.

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