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Michigan’s Dammed

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Michigan’s Dammed

A flood serves as a reminder that natural disasters are often a function of deferred maintenance. May 26, 2020
Infrastructure and energy

“We were sitting at the table having dinner when my phone buzzed,” the homeowner told me. “It was an evacuation alert. By the time I finished reading it, garage doors were opening up and down the street as our neighbors grabbed what they could and tore out of here.”

Thirty miles away, the Edenville Dam had just failed spectacularly, swelling the Tittabawassee River and sending floodwaters cascading toward Midland, Michigan, the corporate home of Dow Chemicals. The hydroelectric power company that owned the dam, built in 1924, had its license pulled in 2018 by the federal government due to doubts over its structural integrity. The state, however, inspected the dam—ten years older than the WPA—and deemed it sound. The dam operators twice lowered water levels in the months following license revocation, citing safety concerns. They brought the levels back to normal after the state filed a lawsuit in late April in defense of freshwater mussels endangered by the low water level.

The danger, it turned out, was at least as great for the 10,000 residents who fled the resulting deluge as it was for any aquatic creatures. While no fatalities were recorded from the failure of Edenville or the near failure of the neighboring Sanford dam, the receding waters left chaos in their wake. Few houses in Midland were left unaffected by the flood—the belongings of their inhabitants lay curbside, stuffed into black plastic bags alongside piles of moldering sheetrock.

A few days after the flood, a friend invited me to join him in Midland for a relief effort organized by his church. The army of volunteers was testament to America’s civic genius. Hundreds had reported all weekend for three shifts a day, meeting in a church parking lot to be grouped into teams and dispatched to do whatever was needed. A slightly-too-earnest young woman handed us a card with an address and gave us a number to call in case we “had structural concerns” and wanted an engineer to examine the house in question before entering. She bade us farewell with the hope that we had eaten our Wheaties that morning.

Structural distress was not an issue—we had been sent to a neighborhood from which the waters had quickly withdrawn. The piles of discarded furniture and other belongings laid upon well-manicured lawns were the only indication of the scale of the disaster. We circled the neighborhood marveling at the castoffs.

We spent the afternoon with a team of about ten people cleaning out the basement of the woman who told me her evacuation story. Some wore masks out of equal parts concern for mold and the coronavirus. The work was relatively light. The morning shift had taken down most of the damaged drywall—I don’t suppose it was dry any longer—and removed the carpeting, so we scrubbed the floor with bleach, set up dehumidifiers, and did other cleaning jobs. A team member expressed relief; he had spent the previous day shoveling three feet of mud out of a living room in a mobile-home park.

The limited damage was just the start of the homeowner’s good fortune. Her foundation had been wrapped during construction with a watertight barrier. Spared by the direct hit of the floodwaters, her basement took on water because the floor drains and shower backed up. The muddy waters rose only to about a foot high, sparing her husband’s collection of 15 vintage pinball machines, packed into the basement.

My friend and I left the home a bit disheartened that we had been sent to such an affluent neighborhood. It’s the policy of his church to help all who ask, but we felt as if our work might have been more meaningful elsewhere. The homeowner was a kind person, though, and seemed genuinely thankful for the assistance.

Before making the trip home, we decided to see the failed bit of infrastructure that was the cause of our visit. That, too, was a disappointment. We spent a good amount of time trying to find routes around closed roads, but never made it closer than half a mile from the dam. We stopped to watch utility workers clear debris from what was left of a downed bridge over the Tittabawassee. The presence of floodlights meant that they didn’t expect to finish anytime soon.

Not far from the bridge, we saw what looked like an island in the river. It soon dawned on us that it was no island, but some farmer’s field that had been separated from the rest of his acreage by the new path of the river, cut by the rushing floodwaters. I thought of a trip I’d taken a few years ago to the Atomic Testing Site in the Nevada desert, where huge craters on the surface mark the underground test detonations of nuclear weapons. The force required to cleave this farmer’s land must’ve been no less ferocious than an atomic blast.

The state insists that the dam’s owner was lowering water levels to shirk on the maintenance required to maintain the usual water level. Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a controversial figure of late due to her draconian response to coronavirus, vowed that the dam’s operator would be investigated for negligence.

Whether the flood was a failure of government, private industry, or both, I was left with two impressions from my experience in Midland. Nature, with its awesome force, doesn’t care whether you’re rich or poor. And we have got to do something about our decaying infrastructure.

Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

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