Life along the Kankakee River can cause stress for residents at any time of the year, but recent ice jams and rapid-snow melt led to an emergency evacuation in a suburban community on Tuesday.
Ice jams are a common occurrence along the stretch of the river that goes through Kankakee, Will and Grundy counties, and on Tuesday morning water levels began to rise quickly, forcing officials in a Wilmington subdivision to order an evacuation.
“You never really get used to it,” Michelle Karczewski, who lives in Phalen Acres, said. “You always hope it’s not going to happen, but you know deep down it will, and so you just prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
Thankfully, Karczewski and her neighbors did not get the worst this time, as residents were allowed to return to their homes at approximately 11 a.m. Tuesday. Even still, the subdivision was still partly underwater, and officials are keeping a close eye on river levels as rain and melting snow have continued to impact the area.
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“There are a lot of resilient residents who’ve lived in that area for a long time and know when it’s time to go,” Wilmington Deputy Fire Chief Todd Friddle said. “Several of them had already done that, but we always need to be ready in case someone is stuck in place and we had to go get them.”
No injuries were reported, but forecasters are keeping an eye out for additional ice jams as colder weather takes hold.
“It has a lot of power,” Friddle said of the river. “It’s unrelenting as it moves downstream. Once rain and snow melt starts to bring the river level up, it’ll lodge against that ice, cause it to break, and then jam again at further points downstream.”
The Kankakee River starts in Indiana and flows to the west and northwest through Illinois, ultimately combining with the Des Plaines River to form the Illinois River.
Parts of the Kankakee River are especially prone to ice jams during the winter, with mounds of ice frequently spotted near the bridge that carries Interstate 55 over the water.
Ice jams cause flooding upstream from the blockage, then can cause rapid flooding downstream once those jams shift around due to warmer weather or additional water that arrives via rain or melting snow.
While Karczewski knows that she and her neighbors avoided the worst-possible flooding this time, she knows that during winter and spring it is critical to keep a sharp eye on any movement on the river.
“You just get everything up off the ground, high as you can,” she said. “You just wait for the water to rise, then to leave so you can clean up.”
Officials with Wilmington Fire Protective Services, along with the Will and Grundy County Emergency Management teams, will continue to monitor water levels until the ice clears out of the area.