The record downpour began soaking the Chicago area before dawn, and foul liquid was soon gushing into a retired doorman’s basement. It climbed the walls as if filling a giant fish tank, and the result was a rare legal test about climate change.

The court case blames local officials for failing to prepare for worsening flooding as temperatures rise, this time causing damage to about 300 homes. The class-action lawsuit, now in its seventh year and recently suffering a major setback, is believed by some experts to be among the earliest efforts to link real flood losses to global warming and government negligence. The case has gone virtually unnoticed until now.

It started with a cloudburst that challenged historic probabilities. The storm struck on Sept. 13, 2008, drumming the lakefront city with more than a half-foot of water. It broke every daily rainfall record since the Civil War era. Cars were swamped, sewers bled, and Dennis Tzakis’ basement churned with a watery mess of gravel and waste that had smashed two windows to get inside. After it filled the basement, it began exploring the first floor.

“There was fish in the street,” Tzakis recalled. “Fish in my basement.”

Like the storm, the lawsuit is an outlier. It points to the effects of higher temperatures on rainfall patterns and alleges that the local government isn’t just failing to keep up with extreme weather, but it’s making the damage worse. The suit is the brainchild of Detroit lawyer Phillip Bazzo, who’s using climate arguments in several Midwestern flood cases. He’s sometimes described as a pioneer, though one, as yet, without a victory.

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