“He raised the bar. He raised our standards and our level of professionalism in those areas, and he was a great member of our community development department.”
— Bob Eschbach, former mayor of Ottawa
Before Mike Sutfin, Ottawa would experience a downpour and become a snapshot for media of residents getting washed out of their homes and leaving in boats.
Then Sutfin came along and raised the standards.
Despite being located on two rivers, flooding isn’t nearly the problem it was before, because Sutfin did everything he could to keep floods from damaging anything in the city to the extent high waters damaged the former Central School.
Sutfin died at the age of 74 on Wednesday, but not before transforming Ottawa along with other cities along the Illinois River, leaving a legacy of hard work and achievement.
Ottawa’s Economic Development Director Dave Noble said Sutfin’s knowledge and connections made him important in helping the city recover after the flood in 2007, and another in 2008 that caused irreparable damage to Central School.
Noble said what Sutfin did took guts. Even though the damage to Central was the school’s issue, Sutfin saw it as the city’s problem too.
“It’s the city’s job to make sure things done in a floodplain are done correctly,” Noble said. “That fell to Mike to condemn the building, and the school didn’t like that because that wouldn’t normally fall under our jurisdiction. He had to have the guts to condemn that building, which he ultimately did.”
Paul Osman, a floodplain manager with the state of Illinois, said making the call to condemn a building is the toughest thing a floodplain manager will do. It follows a rule called the 50% rule that says if a structure is damaged more than 50%, it can’t be rebuilt.
Osman said when Sutfin started the job in Ottawa, there were hundreds of residences that flooded frequently, including those in an area along the Fox River called The Flats. Through the years, Sutfin worked with each of those people either to get them money to move out of the floodplain through an assistance program or to elevate their structures to make sure they don’t flood in the future.
Former Mayor Bob Eschbach said this is how Fox River Park came to be. Sutfin used a grant-funded city program that had Ottawa buy homes in flood plains and tear them down.
“He raised the bar,” Eschbach said. “He raised our standards and our level of professionalism in those areas, and he was a great member of our community development department.”
Noble said Sutfin was instrumental in getting Ottawa grant funding it might not have received otherwise, and he built connections with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others, while creating the Sen. Sue Rezin Floodplain Coalition, pioneering the Rapid Assistance Flood Team and by serving on the Homeland Security FEMA CRS Task Force. On that task force, Sutfin helped set national policy.
Suftin’s work in Ottawa helped the city obtain a CRS 2 rating, which means Ottawa is among the 10 most prepared cities in the country when it comes to floods.
Osman said this means Ottawa residents pay less for flood insurance than those elsewhere.
“Mike came to Ottawa without a whole lot of background as a building inspector and floodplain manager, and in just a matter of a few years he became one of the best guys in the whole nation at it,” Osman said.
Sutfin has worked with the city for more than 12 years. When the city first joined into CRS in 2009, it was a Class 5. The city had worked for a decade to achieve Class 2 recognition and did so through coming up with a flood response plan and strategic buyouts that saved the city $9.5 million in damage avoidance. The city also earned a 40% reduction on flood insurance premiums for residents living in the floodplain to take effect later this year.
Before moving to Ottawa as a building inspector and floodplain manager, Sutfin was a paramedic and firefighter with the Schaumburg Fire Department, retiring as a lieutenant. Before that, Sutfin served in the US Marine Corps from 1968-69, where he deployed to Vietnam.
“Everything he stepped into, he took it on with a crazy passion,” Osman said. “He didn’t just get it done. He did it to be the best.”
Sutfin won many awards in his time working for the city of Ottawa, including the Illinois Association for Floodplain and Stormwater Management’s 2019 Award for Outstanding Service, the 2009 Illinois Floodplain Manager of the Year, and the 2009 National Weather Service’s National Solution Search Award.
Rezin, R-Morris, had said Sutfin made Ottawa a role model nationally.
“Ottawa’s model is recognized by FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as what other communities should be doing,” Rezin had said when Ottawa was honored. “This is a one-of-a-kind model for the rest of the country and it all started right here in Ottawa.”
Noble recalled a story about a builder during Sutfin’s tenure wanting to work through the winter, and how Sutfin wouldn’t approve the permit. He held the building code in high regard, and would explain why the code needed enforced to everyone in an honest, caring way.
“Building official is one of the hardest jobs I know of,” Noble said. “People don’t like you, and you have to tell people no. You can’t be afraid of telling people ‘no,’ but he would, and he could do that in a caring way.”
Sutfin explained to the builder another builder had been having some issues with its roof after building through a bad winter the year before and it would be best for everyone to wait.
Noble said Sutfin saved that builder money in the long run.
Eschbach said Ottawa is lucky and blessed to have someone of Sutfin’s caliber work for the city for so long. Sutfin retired from Ottawa in 2019.
For everything Sutfin accomplished as a floodplain manager and building inspector, he started it as a career later in life. Sutfin also was an artist, working on restoration projects and memorials across the country.
He is survived by his wife, Suzy, and her sons Jeff and Luke, his children Michael, Kimberly, Robert (Sara) and Annette and their significant others, his brothers and sisters William, Jude, John, MaryAnne, Eugene and Tom, according to his obituary. He had 11 granddaughters and one great-grandson. Sutfin also was an uncle and cousin to many.
A memorial Mass is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Francis of Assisi, 820 Sanger St.