Illinois flooding highlights disparities, injustice in community health and safety

Cahokia Heights leaders fail to call for state and federal aid, leaving residents in danger 

July 28, 2022

Contacts: 

Nicole Nelson, Equity Legal Services, 618-693-9800

Jackson, Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing & Opportunity Council, 314-534-5800

Olivia Dorothy, American Rivers, 217-390-3658

Meleah Geertsma, NRDC, 312-651-7904

In the wake of historic flooding in the St. Louis metro area, Equity Legal Services, Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing & Opportunity Council, American Rivers, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Earthjustice today said the flood underscores major failings in disaster response for the people of Cahokia Heights, Illinois, arising from decades of racism that have left this community stranded and which will only increase with climate change. The groups urged municipal, state and federal leaders to help residents of Cahokia Heights, who have been disproportionately impacted by flooding and compounding sewage and drinking water crises. Even as the rest of Metro St. Louis has seen the floodwaters recede, residents of Cahokia Heights are facing elevated floodwaters and sewage in their homes – evidence that local, state and federal disaster systems are failing the communities most in need.

“Cahokia Heights has long been plagued by flooding, even with the slightest rain,” said Nicole Nelson, Executive Director of Equity Legal Services. “Our community has been persistently neglected by municipal leaders who have mismanaged our stormwater and sewage infrastructure to the point that our homes are frequently flooded with raw sewage. For too many years, the rest of the state and our country has abandoned or given up on this Black and very low-income community, leaving it to fend for itself. More recent commitments are promising, but real changes haven’t been made yet and more contributors need to take responsibility for their impacts.”

Cahokia Heights, Illinois, is located in the St. Louis metro area, where, according to the National Weather Service, the area received over 9-inches of rain in a 24-hour period from July 25-26. Rain storms are deemed “extreme” when they exceed 1-inch in a 24-hour period. Cahokia Heights was established May 6, 2021 after the communities of Cahokia, Alorton, and Centreville voted to consolidate. 

“The flooding didn’t allow me to leave my home until this morning,” said Mr. Earlie Fuse, a homeowner in Cahokia Heights. “And I was not able to use my commode or take a bath for three days. About 9 or 10 feet of water is still standing in my basement and foul-smelling water is still rising from the manhole covers of the combined sewer systems.” 

According to IEMA, municipal officials in Cahokia Heights have only requested very limited assistance from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, a request that was not made until several days after the event and following pressure from residents, local groups, and organizations. This lapse in assistance is forcing property owners to invest thousands of dollars in pumps, hotel rooms, bleach, bottled water and other equipment and supplies necessary to deal with the flooding.

“IEMA should have been deploying assistance services in our community before the rain started,” said Kalila Jackson, attorney at Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing & Opportunity Council. “We are asking municipal, state and federal officials to do everything in their power to help Cahokia Heights and the many other Black communities in the Metro East that have suffered from racist disinvestment get the resources they need to respond to this still active flood event.”

The Centreville neighborhood of what is now Cahokia Heights is 95 percent African American and the median household income is $23,500. The area was redlined during the New Deal because the population was 80 percent African American, the community lacked public transportation, and homes were poorly constructed. As with most redlined communities, the city has suffered from intentional race-based disinvestment, as federal finance policies prohibited investments in Black communities. These racist lending policies caused rapid deterioration of homes and infrastructure while allowing white families to flee to “better” neighborhoods and concentrating Black families into the area. For decades, the community has been plagued with flooding caused by stormwater and by overflows of sewage that harm residents and pollute waterways.  

“It is unconscionable that any community in 2022 would be living with persistent flooding and raw sewage in their homes and yards,” said Olivia Dorothy, American Rivers. “But the flooding in Centreville and other parts of Cahokia Heights illustrates that our disaster response and management system is broken and is failing to address the needs of those most affected by these failures.”   

“It’s bad enough when the sewage system breaks or the flood management fails, but when added together it is a potentially lethal combination,” says Earthjustice attorney Debbie Chizewer. “These compounding problems are creating a vicious cycle of pollution and flooding that endangers families, destroys property, and contaminates the water in Centreville.” 

“The systems we have in place to address major water crises perpetuate vast disparities among local communities that have been created by decades of racial segregation and disinvestment,” said Meleah Geertsma, Director of Environmental Justice Policy at NRDC. “These systems work for some – but not for too many others. Greater accountability and coordination is needed at all levels of government to ensure that every resident lives without fear of flooding and raw sewage in and around their homes, and with access to safe, sufficient, and affordable drinking water.”  

As residents fight to recover, more rain is in the forecast for the St. Louis metro area this week. According to NOAA and the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the Midwest is already experiencing and expected to see further increases in precipitation and more frequent extreme precipitation events that cause flooding.

Additional Resources:

Learn more about flooding in Centreville, IL at https://www.floodedandforgotten.com/