About 10,000 people in central Michigan were told to evacuate their homes after rapidly rising water overwhelmed dams, creating what the National Weather Service called a “life-threatening situation.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the destruction in Midland County caused by the failures of the Edenville and Sanford dams was “devastating,” and waters were expected to continue to rise until 8 p.m. Wednesday.
The Tittabawassee River is expected to crest at 38 feet in Midland on Wednesday. By 5:30 a.m., it had broken the record of 33.9 feet set during a 500-year flood event in 1986. At 7:30, it was above 34 feet, according to the NWS.
The US Geological Survey said it was installing a temporary stream gage to the river because the one there only has an operating limit that is 36.5 feet.
No casualties had been reported, the governor said, and a “10,000 person evacuation has gone as well as something like this can go.”
“Continue to take this seriously,” Whitmer said Wednesday afternoon. “If you are in an impacted area and not done so yet, please get somewhere safe.”
The governor recognized that traveling and staying in a shelter was not ideal as the state continued to try to slow the spread of coronavirus. “This is almost unthinkable in the midst of a global pandemic. Continue to wear a face covering if you are going to a shelter. Please try to observe social distancing. I know it’s going to be hard at a shelter, but please try,” she said.
“It’s hard to believe that we’re in the midst of a 100-year crisis — a global pandemic — and a flooding event that looks to be the worst in 500 years,” Whitmer added Wednesday.
The governor declared a state of emergency Tuesday night and said she had asked the federal government for assistance, and President Donal Trump was expected to visit Thursday.
Trump said in a tweet that he was closely monitoring the flooding and had sent military and FEMA teams to the area.
Whitmer said Tuesday night that downtown Midland, a city of 42,000 about 120 miles north of Detroit, could end up under 9 feet of water. “We are anticipating an historic high water level.”
Dow Chemical Co.’s main plant sits on the downtown Midland’s riverbank. A spokeswoman said the plant has activated its emergency operations center and will be adjusting operations as a result of flood stage conditions, and Whitmer said so far the precautions were working.
Many families who lived in the area had been told to evacuate their homes twice in 24 hours.
Emergency responders went door to door early Tuesday morning warning residents living near the Edenville Dam of the rising water. Some residents were able to return home, only to be told to leave again following the dam’s breach several hours later. The evacuations include the towns of Edenville, Sanford and parts of Midland, according to Selina Tisdale, spokeswoman for Midland County.
“We were back at home and starting to feel comfortable that things were calming down,” said Catherine Sias, who lives about a mile from the Edenville Dam and first left home early Tuesday morning. “All of a sudden, we heard the firetruck sirens going north toward the dam.”
Sias, 45, said emergency alerts then began coming on her cellphone and people started calling to make sure she was safe.
“While packing, there were tons of police and firetrucks going up and down the roads,” she added. “As far as I know, all of our neighbors got out.”
While driving along a jammed M-30, the state highway that’s the main road through Edenville and which crosses the river north of town, Sias saw the rushing Tittabawassee River. “It was very dramatic, very fast and full of debris,” she said.
Both the Edenville and the Sanford dams were rated high hazards in 2018, according to the National Inventory of Dams.
In 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked the license of the company that operated the Edenville Dam due to noncompliance issues that included spillway capacity and the inability to pass the most severe flood reasonably possible in the area.
Flood warnings in Michigan were issued following widespread rainfall of as much as 8 inches between Sunday and Tuesday, according to the weather service. Heavy runoff pushed rivers higher.
The evacuations in Michigan followed days of heavy rains in parts of the Midwest that also brought flooding to northwestern Indiana, Chicago and other parts of Illinois, Ohio and other states.
On Wednesday, threats of torrential rain will move through back through Ohio and also south through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Regions through all the states are under flash flood watches, but western North Carolina faces the greatest threat.