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Special Report
Underground Flood Hits Chicagos's Loop, Shutting Down Businesses for Weeks

by Richard L. Arnold, CDRP Editor-In-Chief, Disaster Recovery Journal

 The underground flood of Chicago on Monday, April 13, 1992 is proving to be one of the worst business disasters ever. It is exactly the kind of event that disaster recovery planners prepare for, but hope they never have to experience.

When the disaster struck, I went to Chicago to report on the damage and take photos. The other articles in this special report come from members of the disaster recovery industry who experienced the flood's impacts first-hand.

Although this issue of Disaster Recovery Journal had already been printed, mailing was halted so that we could bring you this special report on this major event.

This disaster will have a far-reaching impact on disaster recovery. Many companies in Chicago were forced to implement their disaster recovery plans. 230 buildings lost power because water threatened their underground power sources. For many disaster recovery planners, this was the first real test of their work. Hopefully we can learn from their experiences.

Reacting to the Flood

Report from Michael Gomoll Chi/Cor Information Management, Inc.

In 1899 the city of Chicago started work on a series of interconnecting tunnels located approximately forty feet beneath street level. This series of tunnels ran below the Chicago River and underneath the Chicago business district, simply known as The Loop. The tunnels housed a series of railroad tracks that were used to haul coal and to remove ashes from the many office buildings in the downtown area. The underground system served Chicago well through the 1940’s when other power sources replaced the coal furnaces. These tunnels went forgotten until April 13th, 1992.

Construction workers had been working along the Chicago River for some time. One of the projects included placing support pillars into the Chicago River bottom. It is theorized that during the placement of one of these pillars, a portion of the turn-of-the-century coal delivery system was damaged. A hole the size of a large automobile formed in the bottom of the river and punctured the tunnel ceiling. Exactly when the rupture took place is unclear, but on the morning of Monday April 13th several Loop office buildings began to report significant amounts of water in basement and sub-basement facilities. The flooding was caused by massive amounts of river water pouring into the maze of underground tunnels. The tunnels led directly into the basements of many of the older Loop buildings.

Marshall Field’s flagship store, located on State Street in the heart of the loop, reported flooding in sub-basements two and three with water levels reaching 40 feet. With heating and electrical systems located in these basement areas, not to mention a substantial amount of valuable inventory, the threat was significant.

Most of the City and County governmental buildings are also located in the Loop. As with the Marshall Field's building, the City/County utilities were threatened by extensive flooding. Valuable assets were also in jeopardy, but in this case the assets took the form of valuable government records. The records existed in hard copy and microfiche form and contained a wealth of historical information about the nations third largest city.

Chicago’s financial district, including the Chicago Board of Trade and Chicago Mercantile Exchange, was also threatened by the torrent of water. The threat of the flooding came not so much from the water itself, but from the impact the flood could have on the extensive electrical and computer networks. It doesn’t require an advance degree in electrical engineering to imagine the potential safety risks to office buildings, some over 100 stories high with thousands of tenants, if the electrical system is comp romised. By mid-day, the entire loop business district was evacuated.

CHI/COR Information Management’s corporate headquarters is located in the heart of the loop and was also affected by the flooding. Located in the southwest corner of the loop, adjacent to the Sears Tower, its offices were on the outer edge of the affected area.

The first order of business for the Executive Committee was to determine what business processes were threatened, and based upon a business impact analysis, initiate the appropriate recovery steps. The Executive committee highlighted the following recovery processes:

  • Evaluate The Threat To Personnel
  • Activate Customer Support Network Procedures
  • Prepare Off-Site Facilities
  • Back-up And Secure Information Systems

Here is how each of these areas was addressed.

Evaluate The Threat To Personnel

It was determined that the threat to personal safety was minimal at the time of disaster declaration, though it was decided that eventually complete evacuation would be a necessity.

The buildings elevator system was scheduled to be shut down by 1:30 p.m. To help avoid a bottleneck at 1:25, all 'non-essential' personnel were evacuated in stages as their recovery functions were completed. All employees were kept informed of evacuation alternatives and timeframes. By following the predefined evacuation procedures and routes, all 'non-essential' personnel were evacuated well before the 1:30 deadline. This orderly evacuation helped make the subsequent evacuation of the emergency staff quick and efficient when the time came.

Activate Customer Support Network Procedures

After all personal safety issues were addressed, the Customer Support Team went into action. Their first order of business was to re-route all customer support lines to a cellular telephone network. Once these cellular channels were in place, the Customer Support Team worked in tandem with the Off-site Facilities Team to ensure that support personnel would have continuous access to their various support tools and databases.

Prepare Off-Site Facilities

Our plan called for the availability of personal computers at several off-site locations for members of the support and development teams. Many support and development personnel have access to PCs at home. The Customer Support plan called for the staggered dispersion of personnel to off-site locations. This tiered approach to the evacuation helped to maintain continuous availability of all support functions, as no time was lost because personnel was in transit. The transportation of support personnel was co ordinated by the Facilities Evacuation Team.

Back-up and Secure Information Systems

The Data Center Team immediately instituted the necessary back-up and protection of critical business applications and data. The back-up of the entire day's activities was initiated and that information was available should the need arise to re-locate to the hotsite facility. All systems and equipment were then secured to protect against any threat caused by the flooding and possible electrical problems.

CHI/COR President Rick Effgen commented 'We were fortunate in many ways. We had sufficient warning time, sufficient evacuation time, and the availability of all of our recovery teams. These factors, combined with extensive planning, allowed us to 'practice what we preach.' We were able to continue all major business functions during the crisis and return to full operations the following business day'.

The ramifications of this disaster, both physical and financial, will be felt throughout Chicago for a long time to come.

Chicago Businesses Forced to Declare a Disaster

Report from John Jackson Comdisco Disaster Recovery Services

At 5:57 a.m. on Monday, April 13, 1992 a building engineer at the Chicago Merchandise Mart found water flooding the third sub-basement of the building. Little did he, or numerous Chicago Fire Department and City workers on-site by 6:10 a.m. know, that a hole the size of a car had ruptured in the restraining wall of a freight tunnel located under the Chicago River. Fifty feet below Chicago�s streets and below the Chicago River, a 100 year old, 60 mile long freight tunnel interconnects the sub-basements of many Chicago office buildings. This tunnel, no longer actively used for freight, serves as a conduit for power, telecommunications and Cable TV cables. The rupture between the river bottom and the tunnel caused over 250 million gallons of water to traverse the tunnel into building basements, causing power to be shut off, buildings to be evacuated, and businesses to c ease operations.

CDRS received its first declaration before 9:00 a.m. Monday. By mid-day, 12 firms had declared 18 individual disasters. The disasters included subscribers from the financial, brokerage, government and services/distribution industries. Additionally, by the day following the initial disaster, 17 alerts were pending for 13 additional customers.

Comdisco supported 8 customers at its Wood Dale, IL site, 7 in Carlstadt and North Bergen, NJ, one AS400 customer in Bridgeport, NJ, one customer in San Ramon, CA, and one in Alsip, IL.

Several subscribers utilized newly configured Workarea Recovery Centers to provide telephone, personal computer and office space solutions for displaced workers. For all vendors, this disaster called for more workarea recovery space than previous disasters, reflecting more comprehensive business planning, rather than just planning for data center recovery. 'This is the largest recovery in our history,' said Comdisco President Ray Hipp.

The disaster was essentially power related, as no actual computer centers were destroyed by the flood. Lights and air conditioning in the work areas are out, so personnel can not occupy the work space.

Once power is restored, many buildings will attempt to isolate themselves from the problems and pump out the water. Efforts to dig a connection from the freight tunnel to Chicago's Deep Tunnel water retention system are projected at 8 days or longer. The entire freight tunnel may be in some danger of collapsing, and a further investigation will survey the total infrastructure of the downtown area for other instability.

Unlike other disasters such as the San Francisco Earthquake and the New York power outage, this was not a brief event followed by restoration. This disaster could drag on for weeks. Just fixing the first part of the problem--stopping the flow of water--could take a week.

The Worst Disaster in Recent History

Report from Barney F. Pelant Barney F. Pelant & Associates

Trends may start on the east and west coasts (i.e. Hurricane Hugo and the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989) in our country, but when it comes to doing it bigger and better, don't count out the midwest. On Monday, April 13, 1992 began what has become the biggest business disaster to face us yet.

The story began last year when contractor Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company of Oak Brook, Illinois installed new pilings around the Kinzie Street Bridge along a branch of the Chicago river that wraps around downtown Chicago. Speculation is that the new pilings, which were driven down into the muddy depths of the river at an unapproved location, ruptured a turn-of-the-century tunnel system. Investigation of the causes will continue for months.

The 62 mile tunnel system was built to support rail and coal supplies to the many buildings of the city. Today the tunnel is used to distribute various cable systems, however the older buildings of Chicago have bulkheads accessing the system. On January 14, 1992, two cable workers from Chicago Cable Television came across the visible cave-in that was occurring in the tunnel at the Kinzie Street Bridge. The concrete was breaking away and mud and silt were coming through the openings. They recorded this on video and attempted to get through the bureaucratic offices of the city to notify the Department of General Services.

The cost to repair the cracked opening was estimated by city officials at around $10,000, but actual repair bids exceeded that amount. Consequently, additional estimates were being requested, and ironically, a meeting to review what should be done was reportedly scheduled to take place a day after the tunnel ruptured.

Days after the disaster struck, the city remained crippled by the slow process of draining millions of gallons of water from the tunnel system and two to three stories of basements that support many of the high-rise buildings in the city. It is here that we find the power distribution, cooling and boiler plants essential to the functioning of the buildings. Tons of materials, including broken concrete, mattresses, gravel and "rapid set" concrete have been dumped into the river atop the opening to try to sto p the flow of water. But all of this was of little help, as the water continued to rise in the buildings. The city was declared a federal disaster area as federal, state and local officials are working feverishly to solve the problem.

For the many businesses in the downtown area with major corporate computer centers, it brought the biggest declaration of disasters yet to hotsite recovery vendors.

This was the largest disaster ever for Sungard Recovery Services, which had its first declaration of disaster at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Seventeen Sungard customers were affected.

The greatest financial impact was felt by the Chicago Board of Trade, which shut down completely on Monday, and resumed trading only at small volume in subsequent days. An estimated 25 billion in trading of the 36 products handled by the CBOT were lost on Tuesday, before limited trading was re-instated on Wednesday.

Although CBOT still had water cascading into its basements on Thursday, it was conducting limited trading with darkened corridors and a limited number of elevators and computers. This impact was felt world wide.

The biggest financial issue yet may be insurance, as this is not being considered an 'act of God' flood, eliminating coverage for many organizations. Estimates are ranging in the $100's of millions in losses.

Business recovery centers like MEDS in Chicago were in immediate use as emergency operations centers for key operations. On Thursday, McCormick Place, one of Chicago's largest conference centers, offered its entire conference space for one month as a free business recovery center for affected businesses.

The Chicago Transit Authority transit system of subways that support the city have been closed down, with re-activation not expected for weeks. A parking ban was placed on the entire downtown area to allow the access needed by the many emergency vehicles being used to provide temporary power, and to pump out water into the storm drains.

Several city blocks went without power for the first couple of days, however by systematically cutting off the circuits to the flooded buildings, other buildings have been brought up. Two of Chicago's largest department stores, Carson Pirie Scott and Marshall Field's were both affected. The 3,000 hourly employees at Field's and the 2,000 at Carson's were paid for work on Monday if they were scheduled to work, but won't return to the payrolls until the stores reopen. Employees at Filene's Basement have been laid off until the store reopens.

The recovery in Chicago will be tentative for a long time to come. Simply stopping the flow of water has been a major engineering challenge, and removing water from the tunnels and basements has stopped until the primary problem can be resolved. Complete blocking of the ruptured tunnels may take 10 days from the initial disaster, and draining the tunnels will probably take an additional two weeks.