MIDLAND, Mich. - A 2,000-acre lake drained in an hour. More than 50,600 cubic feet of water discharging every second. And on top of a raging pandemic that's drained state resources and emotional capacity to deal with it all.
"First it was COVID-19, then we get the flood, and next - where are the locusts?" asked one sheltered resident.
While many are comprehending what's next for a state battered with public health emergencies over the last eight weeks, residents of the area damaged by the flash flood aren't even sure they'll have a home to come back to.
A 500-year flood swept through mid-Michigan on Tuesday and Wednesday, threatening more than 10,000 residents in Midland County and along the Tittabawassee River. The destruction started following days of heavy rainfall over the weekend and into the beginning of the week. The Edenville Dam was the first to rupture around Tuesday afternoon and water from Wixom Lake spilled and magnified the force of the river.
Next came the Sanford Dam's failure when it couldn't hold back the force of the river. By then, residents of Midland, a city of about 40,000, were told to evacuate following predictions the city could be under nine feet of water by late Tuesday. By Wednesday, the river had reached the city, and parts were submerged underwater. More than a foot of water was standing next to Town Hall Wednesday morning. The roof over the Midland Area Farmers Market was spotted just over the floodwaters.
Residents were placed in several shelters around the city. Cots were set up in high schools and community centers for people to rest on. If people weren't staying there, they were asked to stay with friends and family - complicating the social distancing rules mandated by the governor during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Whereas the residents in towns dotting spots further downriver had too much water, homeowners on Wixom Lake had none. The entire lake, encompassing roughly 3.4 billion cubic feet of water, had all but disappeared.
"This was my life's dream, it really was," said Rob Holder, who owned a home on the lake. "We're just trying to not look too far out into the future, if we can."
To put the sheer volume of the flooding into context, you'll need to combine the 3.4 billion figure with the 2.6 billion cubic feet of water sitting behind the Sanford dam. As FOX 2's Derek Kevra puts it, that's roughly 35,000 fillings and dumpings of a pond roughly the size of a football field. That's what was heading toward Midland on top of the 4-7 inches of rain that fell since Sunday.
While flooding in Michigan is common and residents have even come to expect more notable events in May, the seeds of this historic flood were planted decades ago when federal regulators began discovering issues with the Edenville Dam. Years of cited problems went unchecked by the dam's owner, Boyce Hydro Power, LLC, which took ownership of the dam in 2004.
And issues the federal government were most concerned about? The dam's ability to hold back maximum potential flooding.
“The Edenville dam has a high hazard potential rating, which means a failure of the project’s works would create a threat to human life and/or would cause significant property damage," read a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
Regulators eventually revoked the Boyce Hydro Power's license in 2018. The company agreed to sell the dam soon after.
While infrastructure across the country has been in need of new funding for a while, it's consistently received poor grades in Michigan. In 2018, the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the state's dams a C-.
Remarkably, no injuries were reported as of Wednesday afternoon. The river's crest, or its peak height, which was expected to reach as high as 38 feet had its forecasted height fall to 35 feet. It's likely the water levels will remain that high through May 21 before beginning to lower. City officials also said they were "cautiously optimistic" about the risk to the Sanford Dam breaching had decreased due to receding waters. However, experts still weren't sure of the status of it by yesterday.
An added layer of concern is the potential mixing that floodwaters with contaminated on-site ponds at the Dow Chemical Plant. A report from the manufacturer found that "floodwaters were commingling with an on-site pond used for stormwater and brine system/groundwater remediation."
In response to the risk, Dow implemented its flood preparedness plan and shut down all operating units, except for those needed to manage chemical containment. However, the company also downplayed concern of more environmental damage, stating "there had been no reported product releases."
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made a visit to Midland Wednesday afternoon and followed up with President Trump soon after, requesting federal aid to help residents. She also said the state was looking at possible lawsuits in the future due to the reported negligence of upkeep regarding the dam infrastructure.
"We are looking at every potential legal recourse that we have because this incredible damage requires that we hold people responsible and we are pursuing every line of legal recourse that we can," she said.