As It Happens

'What's next?' says Michigan man whose home was flooded after pandemic left him unemployed

More than 11,000 people were forced to flee their central Michigan homes after torrential rains flooded a nearby river and broke two dams.

More than 11,000 people forced to flee their homes after torrential rains cause 2 dams to break

People head to downtown Midland, Mich., to check out the flood level early Wednesday morning, May 20, 2020. (Katy Kildee/Midland Daily News/The Associated Press)


Torrential rains hit central Michigan, sending water bursting over the banks of the Tittabawassee River.

But the real disaster came later. The river breached two dams — Edenville and Sanford — sending flood-water into nearby communities. More than 11,000 people were forced to flee and take up residence in makeshift shelters.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is sending teams to both dams to assist authorities in an investigation. In 2018, the agency revoked the hydropower-generating license for the Edenville structure, accusing its operators of deficiencies.

A representative of Boyce Hydro LLC, which owns both dams, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Mike Kole and his mother live in a house near the river that was severely damaged in the flood. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Mike, can you just first of all describe what the first floor of your house looks like right now?

There's a coating of mud on almost all the flooring. Earlier today, we managed to scrape most of it out and we've been running sand so we're getting a lot of the moisture dried out.

We're cutting out drywall right now. We just started doing that. So we're going to be just kind of gutting the house at this point. 

How high was the water in your house at peak?

So we kind of have our different levels on the main floor, but at the lowest level, it got five feet high.

Mike Kole has been stripping all the flood-soaked furniture out of his Michigan home. (Submitted by Mike Kole )

And so you are obviously not living there right now. You had to leave. So what was your reaction when you realized that one of these dams had failed and that you're going to have to get to high ground?

We kind of did not think the water was going to get as high as it did. I know I was, like, one of the last people to leave. They had the volunteer fire department coming around, and they were the ones who got me to leave.

But I didn't think it was even going to get to our house, because we are on a pretty high bank. But, you know, it hit our house and we had four to five feet of water inside the house, too. So, you know, it was a surprise. It really caught me off guard.

Are you aware of these, I guess, structural problems with this dam, and in particular the Boyce Hydro Power dam? 

What we did know is that there was over the last few years — and this actually goes back pretty far — that the owner of Boyce Hydro wasn't doing all of the proper maintenance, upkeep and upgrades for these dams.

And at some point, too, I know they had revoked this licence because they didn't think the dams could handle high floodwaters or withstand, you know, a major downpour.

But it surprises me, because the dam that broke, which is upriver from us, they had just done repair work on that dam last year.

And Boyce Hydro said that the chances of a flood were about five in one million, even though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is saying that the dam and the other one were in the highest risk category for breaking.

Wow. Well, that obviously wasn't right. You know, we're dealing with that aftermath now.

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

What responsibility do you put on the authorities for not being more vigilant about those dams?

I am very upset. 

FERC ... they're the ones issuing a licence to operate and create energy, and if they knew there were problems like this, and they did nothing about it, you know, of course, there's blame with them. 

There's blame with the owner, too. But they it's the state that should be enforcing these rules and policies. That's why they're there. That's their job.

What was it like as you watched that water creep toward your house?

I had a couple of my neighbours with me and we really had no intention of leaving. It was raising so slowly. The dam failed and it was a couple hours later, the water still had not risen that much.

And then … once that water started making its way to Sanford, gosh, it was going up like a foot every 10 minutes. I mean, you could just turn your back and then look at it again and it was higher.

I understand you were recently laid off because of the pandemic and the lockdowns. Is that the case?

Haven't been working at all, but I pretty much went back to school.

It seems that there's just so much going on, isn't there, for people in Michigan like yourself? I mean ...  you're already dealing with COVID-19, the disease itself, and lockdowns and people losing their jobs and their livelihoods. And now you have a 500-year flood. I mean, does it feel like you just can't get a break?

It does right now. I mean, if you just keep thinking, you know, 2020, what else can happen in this year alone? 

These are events that you just don't plan for. You don't even think about them. And to have them happen just all in the first half of one year, it's a lot. It's more than any of us have ever dealt with at once in our whole life.

And it's only May.

Exactly. You know, you're kind of wondering like, what's next?

I usually just still try to keep a pretty positive outlook. I mean, I'm usually a pretty happy guy.

We'll get through it. Luckily, we have a lot of friends and family and we're all helping out today to get this house back in order.

Just hope for the best.

And you and your mom have some place to stay?

Right now we are staying in our camper. Luckily, that did not get flooded out. 

Written by Chris Harbord and Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Edited for length and clarity. 

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