Thousands forced from homes as river dams break in central Michigan

Floodwaters as high as 1.5 metres have submerged parts of the city of Midland in central Michigan after heavy rain caused a swollen river to overflow its banks and breach two nearby dams. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Weather service warns of 'life-threatening' flood in Midland, northwest of Detroit

'Catastrophic' dam failures pose flood threat in central Michigan, National Weather Service says

2 years ago
Duration 0:48
Thousands of residents urged to flee as raging Tittabawassee River surges toward cities and a Dow chemical plant.

Floodwaters submerged parts of the city of Midland in central Michigan on Wednesday after heavy rain caused a swollen river to overflow its banks and breached two nearby dams.

About 10,000 people were forced to relocate. The Tittabawassee River crested at just over 11 metres (35 feet) in Midland, about 90 centimetres (three feet) below the forecast level.

"It's hard to say a 30- or a 35-foot flood is good news, but it's better than 38 feet," City Manager Brad Kaye said in an evening news conference.

No injuries or fatalities related to the flooding have been reported, according to Midland spokesperson Selina Tisdale.

"Never in my whole life have we seen the dam fail," said Mark Bone, 53, a business owner and resident of Midland, which is about about 200 kilometres northwest of Detroit. "It flood real bad in '86, but never like this."

Bone, who also serves as chairman of the Midland County Board of Commissioners, said he has not slept much since the evacuations were ordered for the south and west sides of Midland two nights ago as a precaution. He said no injuries or deaths had yet been reported.

The floodwaters mixed with containment ponds at a Dow Chemical Co. plant and could displace sediment from a downstream Superfund site, though the company said there was no risk to people or the environment.

Dow said the ponds held only water, and it has detected no chemical releases from the plant in Midland where the company was founded, though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said state officials would evaluate the plant when they're able. Once the flooding recedes, Dow will be required to assess the Superfund site — contaminated with dioxins the company dumped in the last century — to determine if any contamination was released, the EPA said.

'500-year flood'

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday called on the federal government to provide help to the state in responding to the flooding, which struck at a time when it is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

Days of heavy rain caused a swollen river to overflow its banks and breach the Edenville and Sanford dams. Local officials referred to the event as a "500-year flood."

"It is going to have a major impact on community and on our state for the time to come," Whitmer said.

A resident looks at a flooded street along the Tittabawassee River, after several dams breached, in downtown Midland, Mich., on Wednesday. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

A spokesperson for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said that as soon as it is safe, engineers will be sent to both dams to assist state and other authorities in an investigation into the cause of the breaches.

Video posted on social media showed high water lapping around buildings in downtown Midland, partly submerging bridges and roads.

President Donald Trump, already scheduled to tour a Ford Motors Co. auto plant in Michigan on Thursday, said on Twitter he had dispatched teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. military to the flood-stricken area to lend support.

Trump, who had encouraged protesters demanding that Whitmer ease coronavirus stay-at-home orders, tweeting a "LIBERATE MICHIGAN" message weeks ago, chided her again on Wednesday, tweeting, "Governor must now 'set you free' to help. Will be with you soon!"

The emergency unfolded as questions emerged about the past safety record of one of the two breached dams. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2018 revoked the hydropower generating license for the Edenville structure, accusing its operators of failing to address various deficiencies. The commission expressed concern it could not withstand a major flood.

The Sanford Dam, which was built in 1925, received a fair condition rating. Both dams are in the process of being sold.

The extreme flooding comes as the state struggles with the economic and social fallout of the pandemic, and it could further strain resources.

Dot Costello, 101 years old, sits on a bed at an evacuee centre after being evacuated from her home along the Tittabawassee River, after several dams breached, in Midland, Mich., on Wednesday. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

In Edenville, 58-year-old Dan Dionne, returned home to find everything beneath his home washed away.

"I never saw nothing like this," he said. "We had a flood before, but nothing like this. It's like someone picked up my garage and shook it. There's a freezer, refrigerator in my backyard. I don't know where it's from."

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

Flood warnings in Michigan were issued following widespread rainfall of 10.2 to 17.8 centimetres since Sunday, according to the National Weather Service. Heavy runoff pushed rivers higher.

The Tittabawassee River was at 9.3 metres and rising Tuesday night — flood stage is 7.3 metres. It was expected to crest Wednesday at a record of about 11.6 metres.

With files from The Associated Press

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