Ottawa, Illinois

Ottawa, Illinois, Reduces Flood Losses with CRS

“The City of Ottawa truly has benefited from the Community Rating System,” confirms Mike Sutfin, Building and Zoning Official and Floodplain Manager for the City. Of the potential flood losses in the community, he estimates that 40% are prevented because of Ottawa’s participation in the CRS. “The things in the CRS really do work,” he says.
The 12-square-mile community lies in north-central Illinois at the confluence of the Illinois and Fox rivers, and has a population of around 18,500. The confluence of the two rivers within a large (12,000 square-mile) watershed results in periodic flooding that can last for weeks or even months.

In 2007 the City experienced a 100 year flood that overwhelmed the stormwater system and inundated a major subdivision. The resultant public outcry over the causes of the flooding and how it could have been prevented built a resolve not to let it happen again. The community met with the state National Flood Insurance Program coordinator, reviewing the Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance requirements the City had previously adopted. The discussion concluded with the suggestion that the City consider joining the CRS.

The very next year, the flood of record occurred, spurring Ottawa to take the next steps quickly.

“Everything we did in flood loss reduction from that point on was tied to floodplain management and the CRS and also led to the formation of our city Flood Commission,” says Sutfin.

In the early 2000s Ottawa had undertaken a large buyout program in which 80 repetitive loss and other buildings and accompanying infrastructure were removed from the floodplain, especially from a low-lying area known as “The Flats.” Using FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) funds, buildings were cleared, and the area has been converted to the Fox River Park, a large recreation-based open space with playgrounds, picnic areas, and a boat launch.

The removal of so many floodprone buildings was eligible for a good deal of CRS credit, and helped the city enter the CRS as a Class 5 community in 2010, earning a reduction in flood insurance premiums of up to 25% for policyholders. For the next two years the City focused on more CRS activities.

For additional CRS credit, in 2013 the City produced its Flood Threat and Recognition Plan. Ten days later, there was another record flood, 1.5 feet higher than the one in 2008, but the warning system—including automated calling and tracking of houses in need of door-to-door notification—saved lives and minimized property damage. “That Plan and the things we put in place for CRS credit saved us,” says Sutfin.

During that event, a local school received severe flood damage. A vigorous debate ensued over whether the school should repaired in place or be rebuilt out of the floodplain. Eventually Ottawa was able to secure a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency which, along with other funding, allowed a new school to be constructed out of the floodplain. “Being a CRS Class 5 community gave us higher creditability with FEMA and state officials that administer the grants, and this helped secure the funding. You gain that competitive edge from a higher CRS classification,” Sutfin notes.

Since Ottawa joined the CRS, Sutfin has been tireless at keeping the City Council informed about ways to minimize flood risk and the Council, in turn, has supported numerous floodplain management measures that have enhanced safety, property protection, insurance coverage, and preparedness. In recognition of his efforts, Sutfin received the CRS Award for Excellence in 2013.

“If you’re not a CRS community,” he tells people, “you should join for your citizens … to protect them and their property.”

Over the past few years, area flooding has increasingly been approached on a more effective, regional scale, with the formation of the Illinois River Coalition. This grew in part out of the flood loss reduction success achieved by the city of Ottawa and the broader vision of floodplain management that the CRS brought. Now Ottawa and neighboring communities realize that flood mitigation is a river basin issue as well as a local one. “Another benefit of this approach,” says Sutfin, “is that because it’s regional in scale, it garnishes greater political support.”

“We’ve had so many successes due to the CRS, we just hope the word spreads,” Sutfin concludes.

Editor’s Note: This is just a glimpse of the extensive floodplain management program that Ottawa implements. For more on Ottawa’s program, see the city’s website.