Initial Publication Date: April 10, 2014

Flooding in Ottawa, IL

Michael Phillips, Natural Sciences & Business, Illinois Valley Community College


Ottawa, Illinois, was incorporated in 1853 at the confluence the Illinois River and the Fox River and along the Illinois and Michigan Canal. As a river town, flooding has always been a threat. One section of town, where the Fox River empties into the Illinois River and which includes Ottawa Township High School, is protected by a levee. Central Intermediate School was located along the banks of the Illinois River near downtown.

In 2008, the flood risk was recalculated and the forecast height of the 100-year flood was increased. That same year, Ottawa was hit by record flood. The increased extent of the 100-year floodplain included Central School and resulted in decertification of the levee protecting the high school. The flood caused extensive damage to Central School and while the levee at the high school was not overtopped, classes were cancelled based on the floodwaters' proximity to the top of the levee. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) initially offered to provide funds to repair Central School, but the school district and the city wished to abandon the flooded school and build a new school well out of the 100-year flood plain. With the assistance of their State Representative, U.S. Congresswoman, and U.S. Senator, they were able to combine the FEMA funds with a special state allocation and local resources to build a new school. A wise choice that was confirmed when a 2013 flood broke the 2008 record stage by 1.5 feet.

The case study looks at the flood hazard and the response of the city and school districts. The city is now in the process of converting the former school site into a riverfront park that will include a marina and a band shell. The city is also in the process of developing a comprehensive city plan that takes into account and accommodates the flood risk. The city also has also developed a very detailed flood hazard plan.

Individuals with expertise/responsibilities in the following areas have helped create the case study:

  • The Mayor – Bob Eschbach
  • City Engineer – David Noble
  • Assistant City Engineer – Arnold Bandstra
  • City Planner – Tami Huftel
  • Director of Economic Development – Reed Wilson
  • State Representative (76th District) – Frank Mautino
  • U.S. Congesswoman – Debbie Halvorson
  • U.S. Senator's Downstate Director – Bill Houlihan
  • Ottawa High School Supt. – Matt Winchester
  • Ottawa Grade School Supt. – Cleve Threadgill

Key teaching points:

  • The importance of incorporating flood forecasts and floodplain mapping into comprehensive land use planning.
  • The impact of climate and land use changes on the flood response of rivers.
  • The importance of constructing resilient structures in frequently flooded areas.
  • The current and potential economic impacts (positive and negative) of future flooding.
  • Options for mitigation and remediation of both the social system and the economic system.

How this example is used in the classroom:
This example is used to discusses the risks of and responses to hazards. The class may be presented with the whole case as a single topic for discussion OR it may be presented in conjunction with a case study where a community responded to a natural hazard by ignoring or denying the threat.


City of Ottawa:
City of Ottawa, Flood Hazard page (includes the flood hazard plan):
City of Ottawa Comprehensive Plan (includes links to the plan as well as several public presentations given during the development of the plan:
FEMA Flood Hazard Quadrangle for Ottawa: