CHICAGO – A rainstorm pummeling the Chicago area ripped open a sinkhole Thursday that swallowed three cars, injuring one driver badly enough that he had to be hospitalized. Blasts of torrential rain and widespread flooding forced authorities to shut segments of major expressways, and hundreds of flights were scrapped.
Schools were closed, commuter trains slowed to a crawl and a local emergency agency to the north, in Lake County, drafted jail inmates to fill sandbags.
The gaping sinkhole opened up a residential street on Chicago's South Side just before 5:30 a.m. after a cast iron water main dating back to 1915 broke during the massive storm. The hole spanned the entire width of the road and chewed up grassy areas abutting the sidewalk. Two of the cars that disappeared inside had been parked, but a third was being driven when the road buckled and caved in. Only the hood of one of the vehicles could be seen peeking from the chasm.
The driver was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital with non-life threatening injuries, said Chicago Police Department spokesman Mike Sullivan.
Tom LaPorte, a spokesman for the city's water department, said the force of the heavy rain or the movement and weight of the rain-soaked ground could have caused the pipe to crack open.
In the street outside the Willis Tower, an overwhelmed sewer system sent water gushing geyser-like from manholes with such force it rattled the heavy covers.
"The water will come out any way it can," LaPorte said. He said there have been hundreds of reports of flooded basements.
Workers were furiously filling sand bags and putting up barricades along the north branch of the Chicago River in the Albany Park neighborhood in the hopes of keeping the river from rising over its banks, LaPorte said.
On roadways throughout the region, vehicles were stalled in standing water that was nearly up to car windshields in some places. On the Edens Expressway, flooding prompted the Illinois Department of Transportation to divert traffic onto other roads.
Several expressways have been at least partially closed, including the Eisenhower northbound lanes on the city's North Side. Some schools had to cancel classes because buses were unable to maneuver through flooded streets.
Around 550 flights in and out of O'Hare International Airport were canceled, according to the aviation tracking website FlightAware.com.
Thursday's storm drenched the airport with more than 5 inches of rain. The National Weather Service said another band of storms could unload another 2 inches in the afternoon.
"We will have another line of strong thunderstorms going through south of the Chicago area, and behind that there is another area of widespread rain that will move through the area," meteorologist Andrew Crein said.
Trains were delayed on most of the 11 Metra commuter rail lines linking the city and its suburbs because of flooding near tracks and stations, spokesman Tom Miller said. Some lines were brought to a standstill by the snarl of lined-up trains waiting to get into stations.
A lightning strike also caused a power outage that forced track switches to be made manually on one of the lines running north out of the city, causing serious delays.
Throughout north-central Illinois, too, flash flooding forced road closures, and fire departments and rescue crews were helping motorists and residents stranded by the rising water, The News-Tribune in LaSalle reported.
In rural areas, farm fields were flooded, and in Utica, the fire department evacuated a mobile home park. Boats were used in Marshall County to rescue morning commuters trapped by floodwaters, the newspaper reported.
The Illinois Emergency Management Agency was reaching out to communities throughout the state, especially in the northern half, to assess flooding and storm damages and to see if they need assistance, spokeswoman Patti Thompson said.
"It sounds like we have a lot of issues, but not a lot of requests for assistance," she said.
She said the Red Cross has opened shelters in the village of Roanoke, in Woodford County, and in Oglesby, in LaSalle County.