What we know about evacuations, dam failure


About 10,000 people were told to evacuate from parts of Michigan after floodwaters caused two dams to fail following heavy rain across the state.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency Tuesday for Midland County after the Edenville and Sanford dams breached and warned that downtown Midland could be under 9 feet of water by Wednesday afternoon. 

Her office has been in touch with the federal government and will ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for support. 

The floods have surpassed a high point of 33.9 feet set by a downpour in 1986, known as “the worst natural disaster in the state’s modern history.”

The dam collapses have led to impassable roads, a boil water advisory — and raised regulatory questions about Edenville Dam’s hydro-power generating license. It was unclear whether there were any fatalities from the flooding.

Here’s what you need to know about the flooding.

Which Michigan dams are failing and where are they?

Several dams upstream of Midland along the Tittabawassee had either been breached or were releasing water uncontrollably after after 4 to 7 inches of rain fell Sunday and Monday.

The Tittabawassee River in Midland entered major flood stage Tuesday morning when the river was observed at 28.25 feet at 10:15 a.m., according to the National Weather Service. Flood stage is 24 feet. 

By Tuesday afternoon, at least two rivers in mid-Michigan — the Tittabawassee River in Midland and the Rifle River near Sterling — had reached their major flood stage.

The Edenville Dam on the Tittabawassee River, which is owned by Boyce Hydro, breached Tuesday evening. A flash flood warning issued by the National Weather Service warned to expect flooding of small creeks, streams and other low-lying areas. 

The dam, whose owners had its hydro-power generating license revoked in 2018 for its inability to withstand a major flood, is a 6,600-foot earthen embankment up to 54.5 feet in height, spanning both the Tittabawassee and Tobacco Rivers in Midland and Gladwin counties. 

Water passing through the Edenville Dam breach headed downstream to Midland County’s Sanford Lake, where the Sanford Dam, also owned by Boyce, was breached later in the day Tuesday. That dam lies south of Edenville and about 8 miles away from the city of Midland.

Lee Mueller, the architect and co-member manager of Boyce Hydro, declined comment Wednesday morning.

Midland City Manager Brad Kaye said that the extent of the structural damage to the Sanford Dam is not yet known.

If the entire dam structure is gone, as opposed to portions of it, “there would be a much higher surge that will come down the river and that could raise the level much more quickly than what we’re seeing right at the moment,” Kaye said.

As of Wednesday morning, the Tittabawasse River hit a historic high, rising above its previous record in 1986, and reaching 34.6 feet. Major flood stage is 28 feet. By the end of the day, the National Weather Service forecasted it would be at 38 feet.

Traveling amid coronavirus: What does evacuating while social distancing look like?

Whitmer said parts of the city of Midland, the village of Sanford, Edenville Township and Dow Chemical had been or were being evacuated.

Whitmer said despite stay-at-home orders generally telling people not to travel, it was important that anyone living in the affected areas evacuate as quickly as possible to safer areas, or go to the homes of relatives and friends. Three shelters had opened in Midland County, as well.

“This is unlike anything we’ve seen before… but this is truly a historic event that’s playing out in the midst of another historic event,” Whitmer said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic which has led to stay-at-home orders throughout the state and the deaths of more than 5,000 people.

“Please do not hesitate. Go to stay with a friend or relative or go to one of these shelters now,” she said, adding that even at a shelter, people should try to do the best they can to practice social distancing and wear a face covering to protect themselves and others from coronavirus.

About 100 people slept at the shelter on cots and air mattresses spread across the basketball floor at Midland High School. The beds were kept 6-feet apart because of social distancing.

Dave Percha lives in an apartment in Midland in an area evacuated because of massing flooding. He said the fire department told him he had to leave, so he spent Tuesday at the high school.

Percha was unemployed for two months because of the coronavirus.

And now there’s this.

“I’m just waiting for the meteor,” Percha said Wednesday morning.

On top of the flood, they had to deal with social distancing in the shelter. Everybody was required to wear masks. Three volunteers walked around the gym, continuously wiping down beds.

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Not all flood alerts are the same. Here’s what you should take seriously.

USA TODAY

Are the Dow Chemical headquarters affected? Will it affect the area?

Dow Chemical Co. has been headquartered in Midland for more than 120 years, and its main plant sits on the city’s riverbank.

With 9,000 employees and contractors in Midland, Dow shut down all operating units except those needed to contain chemicals on Tuesday, spokesman Kyle Bandlow said.

By Wednesday, floodwater was mixing with on-site containment ponds and the company and U.S. Coast Guard activated emergency plans, Dow said in a statement. No injuries were reported.

Dow implemented its flood preparedness plan, the details of which the company did not disclose. They also did not specify what types of chemicals may have mixed and spilled with the flood waters.

The situation is raising concerns among residents and environmentalists about potential widespread toxic contamination as it copes with the evacuation of thousands of residents at the same time as the coronavirus pandemic.

In 1981, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that the plant’s waste runoff was a significant source of the highly toxic chemical dioxin into the Tittabawassee River.

“If this flooding does what it’s anticipated to do, the legacy from Dow’s dioxin will become much more widespread and much more prominent in people’s everyday lives,” said Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the nonprofit Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

How has President Trump responded?

Trump posted his support on Twitter for efforts to respond to flooding in mid-Michigan.

“My team is closely monitoring the flooding in Central Michigan – Stay SAFE and listen to local officials,” Trump posted about 10:20 a.m. “Our brave First Responders are once again stepping up to serve their fellow citizens, THANK YOU!”

He also said in a separate post that his administration had already activated military and Federal Emergency Management Agency response teams but said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — who Trump has criticized in the past — “must not ‘set you free’ to help.”

Whitmer said at a news briefing late Tuesday she had contacted federal officials for help and activated the National Guard, so it wasn’t immediately clear what Trump was trying to say by saying she needs to take some additional action.

Flooding tops 1986 disaster, the state’s worst in modern history

The Tittabawasse River is expected to reach 38 feet, more than 10 feet above major flood state, and surpassing the record set in 1986 when it hit 33.9 feet. 

Back then, the Midland Daily News reported, the rain began on Sept. 9 and fell for days.

The flooding ruined crops, destroyed homes. It was, according to the National Weather Service, “the worst flood disaster in 50 years,” causing damage of $400 million and $500 million, which is between $950 million and $1.2 billion today.

Part of the problem now, is that, in addition to sustained rainfall in the area, the river is swollen by massive downpours from north of Midland, which have swelled the rivers and creeks.

Still, National Weather Service forecasters said that a break from the rain until Saturday, when showers are expected, may give the state some time to allow waters to recede.

Next week, they said, could bring more rainfall.

Most Michigan dams aging, crumbling

The failing Midland County dams are just the most high-profile examples of a chronic problem in Michigan: dams that are as aging and crumbling as Michigan’s roads and bridges.

Whitmer said the dam failures were a known threat and the state will be reviewing “every legal recourse that we have” because the damage requires that we “hold people responsible.” 

A 2018 report card on Michigan dams by the state chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers found that while the state had improved its D-grade from the society’s 2009 report card, it still had persistent issues.

“There are approximately 2,600 dams in Michigan, of which about two-thirds are older than their typical 50-year design life. In the next five years, about 80 percent of Michigan’s dams will be over 50 years old,” their report stated.

There were 19 high-hazard dams in unsatisfactory or poor condition in Michigan in 2018, ranking 20th among the 45 states and Puerto Rico for which The Associated Press obtained condition assessments.

What else is happening in Michigan?

Also Wednesday, a Michigan conservative group protested Whitmer’s stay-at-home order and the closure of barbershops and salons by giving free haircuts outside the state capitol in Lansing. The group held what it called Operation Haircut outside the Capitol.

President Donald Trump is also scheduled to visit a Ford Motor plant in Ypsilanti on Thursday where workers are making ventilators during the coronavirus pandemic. Whitmer’s office said the visit contradicts rules to combat the spread of coronavirus she put in place, but she will not try to stop it.

Contributing: Frank Witsil, Detroit Free Press and The Associated Press

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