The first emergency alerts sounded in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, when small-town residents near two lakes strung together by Michigan’s Tittabawassee River were told to seek higher ground.
First responders went door to door in the riskiest places, startling some people awake with an unpleasant message: Days of heavy rain had put too much stress on nearby Edenville Dam, which held back the rising waters of Wixom Lake above. The dam was expected to break.
Shortly before 6 p.m. Tuesday, it did just that ― water began gushing from the lake down into the river valley. Local pilot Ryan Kaleto captured the disaster from the sky in footage posted to Facebook that shows a powerful current felling trees and swallowing them whole.
“Wixom Lake will be gone by tomorrow,” Kaleto predicted.
The water kept going, feeding into Sanford Lake, held back on its southern end by the Sanford Dam. By 7 p.m., that failed, too, and Sanford Lake began draining into the Tittabawassee River, flowing downstream to Midland, Michigan, a city of around 42,000 best known as the longtime international headquarters of the Dow Chemical Company.
Video of Sanford Lake posted Tuesday evening shows a pontoon careening across a seemingly calm surface of water that had risen nearly to the underside of a bridge, reflecting a pinkish-purple sunset. In under 10 seconds, the boat meets the bridge and holds still for a breath before an unseen current grabs hold and drowns it.
“Are you kidding me?” a voice says.
Midland County is no stranger to flooding, but this week’s event was historic. The Tittabawassee crested at 35.05 feet, topping the previous record of 33.94 feet set during a major flood in 1986. The state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, declared a state of emergency Tuesday night, urging residents in the flood zone to seek shelter with family or friends or head to one of several shelters set up in schools that have been closed for weeks.
It’s an economic and humanitarian disaster. And then, of course, there’s the pandemic.
“This is truly a historic event that’s playing out in the midst of another historic event,” Whitmer said at a press conference on Tuesday.
In the Midland area, the effects of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, have been relatively mild. Cases in the county have flattened over the past several weeks, currently standing at a total of 76, with eight deaths and 49 recoveries, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The same is not true of communities in the southeastern part of the state, including Detroit, with some of the highest COVID-19 mortality rates in the nation. Whitmer enacted precautionary stay-at-home orders statewide to ensure no other region sees such a spike in cases.
A Perfect Storm
The Midland area’s economic situation is direr given the statewide order to keep theaters, restaurants and bars closed through May 28.
Miranda Hess, a legal assistant in Midland, described surveying damage to one relative’s hard-hit home in Sanford. The water had reached the top of the steps to the second floor before it receded, leaving a crumbling first-floor ceiling and a 4-inch layer of mud and dirt “everywhere inside and out,” she said. Only the belongings on the upper floor could be salvaged. The hot tub was missing.
Other things vanished, too.
“There was a red house, it was an old farmhouse just across the Curtis Road Bridge,” said longtime resident Alice Such, who served as Edenville Township supervisor for several years until the mid-2000s. “You would never know a house was there.”
“It’s just heartbreaking, you know,” she told HuffPost, adding that her household was lucky not to have lost more than a pontoon boat and a shed ― in other words, “just stuff.”
No fatalities or injuries have been reported. Many people in the sprawling neighborhoods east of the river were spared, while others were left dealing with basements that had flooded to varying degrees. (At least one person found a live fish in their home floodwaters.) Around 10,000 people in Midland, however, were forced to flee their homes, alongside close to 1,000 people from nearby towns, including Sanford and Edenville.
In Sanford, Hess said, businesses were already struggling with closures due to the coronavirus. She is “very concerned about their ability to rebound” from the added economic stress.
Armin Mersmann, an artist living in Midland with his wife, was among those spared the worst of the flooding just blocks away ― his home sits on an elevated street. Another artist he knows wasn’t so lucky; with studio space in the flood zone, the man lost 50 years’ worth of work and supplies. Many people haven’t been able to access their homes to assess the damage, he said.
As people come together to deal with the impact of the flooding, Mersmann worries about the harm a spike in coronavirus cases would do to the community.
“All of a sudden, people forgot about this virus,” he said, having seen a lot of maskless people checking out damage around town.
‘We’re Just Trying To Help Each Other Out’
Whether or not a deadly virus is spreading, neighbors want to help neighbors. A Midland realtor, Badger Beall, told HuffPost Wednesday that he’d spent the morning helping a business partner move some of her belongings to safety.
“I guess we’re all just trying to help each other out. Some people are doing astronomical amounts, and some people are just doing their little share all over the place,” Beall said.
Whereas the 1986 flood was a “100-year event,” Midland City Manager Brad Kaye told reporters, a flood like this only comes along every 500 years.
“We have never been through an event such as the one we’re experiencing today,” Kaye said at a press conference.
Wednesday’s weather became oddly cheery. A main Midland thoroughfare, M-20, stood covered in mud-colored water sparkling against a perfectly clear sky.
Kaleto’s prediction turned out to be correct: Photos showed Wixom Lake looking like a craggy desert, leaving boat docks out to dry. Downstream, more photos showed Sanford Lake nearly completely empty, revealing a golden sandy bottom dotted with sticks and debris.
Both lakes were popular warm-weather destinations for fishing and boating ― particularly the unmoving variety, where everyone hangs out on the water enjoying the sun. They formed in the 1920s when the dams went up, providing hydroelectric power to the region.
By this year, standing at nearly 100 years old, both dams were well known to have structural deficiencies. Due to their private ownership, Such said, there was little local government officials could do. Only in the past few years was a plan concocted to transfer ownership of four local dams, including Sanford and Edenville, to a quasi-governmental group called the Four Lakes Task Force to spend up to $35 million bringing the structures into the 21st century.
Records with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission show that the dams’ owner, a company called Boyce Hydro, had been neglecting them for years, repeatedly missing deadlines to comply with safety regulations to prevent overflow.
Boyce Hydro kept saying it could not make the improvements due to “financial hardship” while refusing to provide documentation of any such problems. In a 2018 order revoking the company’s license to operate the dams, the FERC replied “as sarcastically as a regulatory agency can,” as Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley put it.
“The Commission will not rely on factual representations regarding Boyce Hydro’s financial status when it later claims evidence regarding those representations is not germane to the matter at hand,” said the FERC.
Last spring, both sides reached a tentative agreement to transfer ownership to the task force. At the time of the dams’ failure, however, Boyce Hydro was still the technical owner.
There is also some evidence, Kaye told HuffPost, that the Smallwood Dam ― upstream of both Sanford and Edenville ― may have overflowed and set off the disaster in the first place. The Smallwood structure is also owned by Boyce Hydro.
Whitmer has promised that the state will “pursue every line of legal recourse” against those responsible for the dam failures.
Crumbling infrastructure is hardly unique to Michigan. Some 1,680 dams across the U.S. are in bad condition, putting an unknown number of homes and businesses in danger of potentially life-threatening flooding, according to an Associated Press investigation released in November. Many are at least a half-century old and no longer prepared to face the challenges of more extreme weather brought on by a warming climate.
The destruction in the Midland area might even represent a best-case scenario, considering how quickly local authorities responded to give residents time to get out. Sometimes, dams fail without warning.
“They just fail, and suddenly you can find yourself in a situation where you have a wall of water and debris racing toward your house with very little time, if any, to get out,” a former Federal Emergency Management Agency official told the AP.
Although the floodwaters were still receding around mid-Michigan on Thursday, some locals have already taken an optimistic view.
Tony Stamas, president and CEO of the Midland Business Alliance, pointed out that the floodwaters hadn’t damaged downtown Midland’s Main Street, which sits on a hill. His group will now help local businesses navigate “parallel paths” through the coronavirus and flooding crises, he told the Detroit News.
The City of Midland also appears to have been spared potentially worse damage. Although water escaped the Sanford Dam and caused massive flooding, the structure appears at least partially intact. Officials will not know the extent of the damage until floodwaters recede.
“Midland County is a very generous, heartwarming, giving community,” Such said. “We will rally, and we’ll get through this.”