Thousands evacuate due to 'historic' mid-Michigan flooding
MIDLAND, Mich. — Floodwaters have overtaken dams and forced the evacuation of about 10,000 people from communities in central Michigan, where the governor warned that Dow Chemical Co.'s hometown could end up under 9 feet of water by Wednesday evening and said the state will investigate the dam operators.
Families living along the Tittabawassee River and connected lakes in Midland County were ordered to leave home Tuesday evening, the second time in less than 24 hours. By Wednesday morning, water several feet deep covered streets, parking lots and parkland and had reached a hotel near the river in downtown Midland.
No injuries or fatalities related to the flooding have been reported, city spokeswoman Selina Tisdale said.
The river topped a previous record of 33.9 feet (10.3 meters) set during flooding in 1986, the National Weather Service said. Its flood stage is 24 feet (7.3 meters), and it was expected to crest by day's end at about 38 feet (11.6 meters).
The Weather Service urged anyone near the river to seek higher ground following “catastrophic dam failures” at the Edenville Dam, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) north of Detroit, and the Sanford Dam, about seven miles (11 kilometers) downriver.
Midland City Manager Brad Kaye said Wednesday that the Sanford Dam is overflowing but the extent of structural damage isn't yet known.
If the entire dam structure were to fail, “there would be a much higher surge that will come down the river and that could raise the level much more quickly than what we’re seeing right at the moment," Kaye said.
Michigan is under a stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. While Michigan has been a national hot spot for COVID-19, with more than 52,000 cases and 5,000 deaths, Midland County has had fewer than 80 cases and under 10 deaths. Still, residents were advised to take precautions and area schools set up as shelters spaced cots to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said downtown Midland, a city of 42,000 and home to Dow Chemical Co., faced an especially serious flooding threat.
“In the next 12 to 15 hours, downtown Midland could be under approximately 9 feet of water,” the governor said during a late Tuesday briefing. “We are anticipating an historic high water level.”
On Wednesday, Whitmer told reporters that her office has been in touch with the federal government and will ask FEMA for support. “This is an event unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” she said.
President Donald Trump tweeted that he was closely monitoring the situation and praised first responders. But he also took a jab at Whitmer, whom he has criticized for her stay-at-home orders: “We have sent our best Military & @fema Teams, already there. Governor must now ‘set you free’ to help. Will be with you soon!”
Whitmer said the state would investigate the operators of the dams and “pursue every line of legal recourse we have.”
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said it has directed Boyce Hydro to establish an independent investigation team to determine the cause of the damage to Sanford Dam, and that it would reach out to state officials regarding the Edenville Dam. It will send an engineer to assist with the investigation when it’s safe to do so.
In 2018, the commission revoked the license of the company that operated the Edenville Dam due to non-compliance issues that included spillway capacity and the inability to pass the most severe flood reasonably possible in the area.