Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker Pledges Support For Fixing Centerville Flooding Problems
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
CENTERVILLE — Illinois Gov J.B. Pritzker has pledged his administration’s support for a $22 million federal grant that local officials believe would fix years of flooding and sewage issues faced by residents of north Centreville.
He described the ongoing problems “a textbook example of environmental racism” during a visit to Centreville last week.
“The persistent flooding and sewage residents have experienced are entirely unacceptable, especially in a pandemic when home has never been more sacred,” Pritzker said.
“Make no mistake, we are going to get the Centreville sewage project funded. My Illinois Emergency Management Agency has already submitted a $22 million grant request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that prioritizes funding and fixes the situation that has been allowed to fester too long in this community.”
‘If we get a box of matches, that’d be more than we’ve been getting’
Residents welcomed Pritzker’s support, the first time he’s publicly spoken about plans to address flooding and sewage problems in north Centreville. U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, has also pledged her support for the grant
North Centreville residents for years have had raw sewage in their backyards and severe damage to their homes due to flooding. They have had minimal help from local government. The problem has led to a lawsuit filed last summer against the city and township governments of Centreville and public officials on behalf of residents.
Officials have said the area’s poor sewage infrastructure has caused the issue, which they say requires federal funding to fix.
In January, Cahokia, Centerville and Alorton applied for a $22 million grant through a new FEMA program titled BRIC (Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities). If awarded, the grant would help repair and replace the sewer systems in the three communities, which will merge to become Cahokia Heights next month.
Pritzker said he’ll work with other state agencies to ensure residents in the new town won’t have to deal with poor sewage and drainage systems.
“I’ll use every tool at my disposal as governor, with my department of natural resources director, in working together to advocate for necessary federal support as well as the other agency leaders from the Illinois EPA,” Pritzker said. “They’ve all been in communication with local officials to discuss how to improve drainage and sanitary systems in the new Cahokia Heights community. While this project requires robust federal funding, as local leaders have made clear, we are committed to supplementing the effort with available state resources.”
Earlie Fuse, who lives in Centreville, is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. During a storm last summer, his basement and garage filled with water. His basement walls frequently cave in after storms since he moved into his home nearly 30 years ago. He said he appreciates the governor’s support.
“If we get a box of matches, that’d be more than what we’ve been getting,” he said.
However, he is concerned about local officials holding the funds and not fixing the issues.
“If they put the grant somewhere else, and not the city, because the city hasn’t done anything, that would be good,” Fuse said. “I moved out here in ‘92, and I’ve been getting flooded out here ever since ‘93. So far, this year, I haven’t gotten flooded. I think things will work out if they put an overseer or somebody to make sure it goes where it should go.”
Fuse is a part of Centreville Citizens for Change, a group of residents demanding solutions to the persistent flooding in the area. Last week, the group hosted a virtual town hall meeting aimed at highlighting the plight of Centreville residents along with seeking answers about solutions from local and state agencies. Duckworth attended the town hall and described the situation in Centreville as a product of environmental racism.
Fuse said receiving support from federal officials like Duckworth brings him and his neighbors a step closer to receiving relief. He also believes the FEMA grant will help local officials fully bring infrastructure issues under control.
Sharon Smith, another Centreville resident, thinks the same. Like Fuse, she was affected by the July flooding. Smith said she and her husband were forced to stay with a nearby family member because streets in her neighborhood were flooded.
The summer storm was the last time her home was damaged due to severe flooding. Since then, Smith said she has seen people working near ditches to improve the issues, but she said it’s not happening quickly enough. She is optimistic about the governor’s support.
“I mean they’re getting it done, but we’d probably need the governor’s support to push it a bit further and to get it done a lot faster than what they’re doing because it shouldn’t take this long to get it together,” said Smith, a member of Centreville Citizens for Change.
Is federal support enough?
Nicole Nelson, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit along with her team Equity Legal Services, said she’s glad to have the governor’s attention, but her concerns about the grant still stand. Among them, she said, are the lack of resident engagement and the possibility of grant funds being mismanaged by local officials, given their neglect of the sewage and flooding issues.
“Citizens have been mobilized for decades, and I definitely don’t think this is an issue of residents standing by and complaining,” Nelson said. “I think these are legitimate concerns. While we’re definitely supportive of money coming into the community, we just want to make sure that those who are supportive of it are giving a critical eye into how that money is coming in and how it’s used.”
Nelson also thinks relief for damaged homes due to the flooding should’ve been considered when officials sought funding to fix the problems. The grant from FEMA only involves the repair and maintenance of sewage systems in the area.
“They seem just so disconnected from the people they represent,” Nelson said. “And I’m not talking about the governor. I’m talking about the folks who put this application together.”
Centreville Township Supervisor Curtis McCall Sr., will be the mayor of Cahokia Heights by the time the area is expected be notified of their application status. He said he was ecstatic to hear the governor’s statement on Centreville.
“I didn’t know that he was going to be this forthcoming about his commitment to these citizens whether we get funded through FEMA, and it was very forthcoming to hear that,” McCall said. “I think that the government is aware of the severities of the pandemic that it has had on communities of color, and now the environmental pandemic on communities of color throughout the state of Illinois and throughout the nation.”
McCall understands the failures of local leadership, including himself, in addressing the flooding issue and reaching out to residents. He was named one of the defendants in the citizens’ lawsuit. He attended last week’s town hall meeting, though he wasn’t on a panel to speak to residents.
Although he said the flooding problems are issues that require more than what local governments can provide, he plans to make direct contact with residents to hear their concerns as mayor of the new town.
“I tend not to seek to concentrate on who is to blame for the past, but instead accept my responsibility for the future,” McCall said.
Yvette Lyles, who’s also a part of Centreville Citizens for Change, was one of two residents that McCall visited at their homes on Friday. She said she showed him the damages the flooding does to her home. Lyles said Friday’s visit was the first time in nearly 20 years since she’d seen him in person.
“It was very interesting,” Lyles said about the visit. “He assured me about the grant that’s supposed to be coming through and what they plan to do with it.”
Although Lyles said she wants to remain optimistic, she said the governor’s support of the grant doesn’t change how she feels about it. She wants to see action.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Lyles said. “From 20-40 years, they’ve known that this problem has been going on and you didn’t do anything to help the people?”
She added: “If the governor is willing to back it, let me see him send some people here to start some action.”
Pritzker said the work in Centreville doesn’t end with the grant. He said he plans to work with advocates in the area and promised to bring justice to communities in Illinois, like Centreville.
“True justice and true fairness mean a safe house, clean streets, clean water and clean air,” Pritzker said. “It involves solutions that work for all of our communities, and we’re going to find a solution that works for Centreville so that residents and their children can have the community that they deserve.”
DeAsia Paige is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.