Cain: Local civil engineer is a sharp guy who’s all wet
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain On Businessfirstname.lastname@example.org May 3, 2013 11:42PM
Howard Hamilton, president of Robert E. Hamilton Consulting Engineers, Inc., talks about the water line from the DuPage River following recent rain in the Caton Farm Acres subdivision Friday, May 3, 2013, in Plainfield. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 6, 2013 6:52AM
Water has fascinated Howard Hamilton since he was a boy playing with a garden hose in his backyard sandbox.
“It’s what I do,” he said of his 28-year-career in Joliet as a civil/environmental engineer who specializes in wastewater treatment.
Hamilton, 50, of Plainfield, said he was mesmerized by the channels the water carved through the sand.
“I would make little rivers and little dams,” he said. “I always say I learned more about how water moves playing with the sandbox than I ever did in college.”
But the calculus he took at the University of Illinois explained why the water “makes the shapes that it makes.”
All of that training and a master’s degree focused on hydrology and hydraulics has helped him in his career at the Joliet engineering firm that his dad, the late Robert Hamilton, founded in 1955.
And it helped him understand what happened to his former Plainfield neighborhood, which flooded in 1996 when the DuPage River rose to a record 14.03 feet.
But his education and training also led Hamilton to become a certified inspector for the safety evaluation of buildings after wind storms and floods. He took the Applied Technology Council training two years ago, but it wasn’t until a week ago that he was called by the city of Marseilles to inspect homes after massive flooding caused by the April 18 deluge that soaked Northern Illinois.
Hamilton and an architect from Chicago walked several blocks for more than six hours to inspect homes that had missing foundations, collapsed walls and massive floodwater damage.
Hamilton said water damages homes in two ways: Hydrostatic force surrounds a home and pushes in foundations. Hydrodynamic damage is caused by rushing water that pushes down walls.
“It’s like being in a river,” he said.
Hamilton has seen post-disaster scenarios before. He experienced the flooding of 1996 and the tornado of 1990 in Plainfield.
He drove by his old Plainfield neighborhood on the day of last month’s flood, which caused the DuPage River to crest at 11.5 feet, just as the county was tearing down homes that it purchased with Hurricane Ike flood-relief funds. The flood-prone land is going to be turned into a park.
But he’s never been the guy wearing a badge who can “red tag” a home and tell someone to get out, which is what he did in Marseilles.
“That I didn’t like,” Hamilton said, but it had to be done.
The saddest scene he encountered was a man who was using temporary supports to try to keep his house from collapsing. When Hamilton told the man he had to leave, he started to cry.
“This is the only thing I own, and I need to save my house,” the man told him.
The distraught homeowner did leave his house, and to make things worse, he and his neighbors have no flood insurance because the area wasn’t in a floodplain. That’s what is so heart wrenching about some of the damage, Hamilton said.
So while water may fascinate Hamilton, he knows the devastation it can cause, too. That’s why he pushed for a new DuPage River gauge at 119th Street when he was the Will County stormwater director. That gauge gives the Shorewood area, hard hit by the 1996 floods, a four-hour warning when the water is rising.
Hamilton also has signed up for National Weather Service “Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service” alerts on his cellphone.
“Whenever the river crests above 8 feet (flood level), I get an email every hour,” he said.
So whether it’s on the job or after hours, Hamilton always seems to have his eye on the water.
“Everything I do is wet,” he said.