If Utica officials again tell residents to flee overflowing riverbanks, Tim and Jill Lee will already be gone.
The Lees co-own Two Girls and a Cupcake, the sweets shop located on Route 178 south of downtown, which took 3½ feet of water when the Illinois River flooded last year.
The river is rising again, but this time the Lees have a contingency plan in place. Everyone in the family has a job spelled out and will fly into action when and if the river hits major flood stage. The U-Haul will pull away minutes after the village blows the whistle.
“We watch the river every day,” Jill Lee said Monday after the National Weather Service issued a flood watch. “We’re 100 percent ready for anything.”
For now, nobody needs to move. The Illinois River is flooding — a little — but remains well short of the record flood stage set on April 19, wreaking havoc throughout the area. Mother Nature still has some tricks up her sleeve, however, including a winter storm (4-8 inches of snow possible) coming tonight. Area residents are advised to keep an eye on the forecast as well as the river.
“They want people to be prepared, but not ready,” said lockman Bill Keeney, himself a resident of Utica. “It’s just precautionary measures at this point.’
The National Weather Service is warning only of “minor flooding” through Thursday along the Illinois River. After last year’s record flood, however, people in along the riverbanks are keeping a wary eye on the heavy snow pack melting under the otherwise delightful sun.
A large swath of the Fox River remains frozen, raising concerns that any runoff from the watershed upstream could cause flash flooding. Mike Sutfin, building and zoning official for the city of Ottawa, said he’s watching the carefully.
“It’s interesting,” Sutfin said. “March is National Flood Awareness Month and our flood conference is this Wednesday. I hope I don’t have to rush back from my conference to deal with a flood.”
Fred Moore, deputy director of La Salle County Emergency Management Agency, said his office is keeping close contact with NWS as well monitoring the rivers twice a day.
“If things progress to the point where it’s looking bad,” Moore said, “we’ll increase our watches on the river.”
The rivers are likely to swell somewhat today. Temperatures were expected to stay above freezing through this morning, funneling the melted snow into the creeks and, ultimately, the Illinois and Fox rivers.
Most of that snow will run off, not seep into the ground. Bill Nelson, a meteorologist with the NWS in Romeoville, explained the top inch of soil has melted to absorb a little of the snow; but beneath that thawing topsoil is 15 to 20 inches of frozen ground that will limit how much runoff is absorbed.
The good news is it’s going to freeze again. Area residents who inflated their bicycle tires Monday (daytime high: 54 degrees) might not be happy to hear that, but Nelson said the falling mercury will “help significantly in abating the runoff and ease any rises in the Illinois River.”
The X-factor is how much snow is coming tonight. The service has upgraded tonight’s forecast into a winter storm warning beginning at 10 p.m. tonight. Rain will morph into a wintry mix into snow, with accumulation anticipated through 1 p.m. Wednesday. Forecasters project a base range of 4-8 inches, with the possibility of a foot, plus winds of 25 mph.
For the rest of the week, overnight lows will be close enough to freezing to let Utica residents breathe a sigh of relief — even if the rest of us were hoping spring had arrived a wee bit early.
“It’ll be a little bit of a roller-coaster ride on the temperatures,” Nelson said.
As long as the river levels don’t follow that roller-coaster pattern, Utica residents will deal with the alternating sunshine and cold.
Gregg Kane, who owns the Illinois River Winery next door to the Lees, said he has a gut feeling Utica will dodge the bullet that last year hit villages square in the chest.
But he’ll be ready to run: Having survived two floods in six years, he’s become adept at packing up and then mopping up.
“It’ll be what it’ll be,” Kane said stoically.
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.