Michigan Dams Fail: Severe Floods Force Thousands to Evacuate

The Four Percent

Severe flooding struck central Michigan on Wednesday after two dams were breached by rain-swollen waters, forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents and prompting officials to warn of life-threatening danger.

The failures on Tuesday of the Edenville Dam and the Sanford Dam, about 140 miles northwest of Detroit, led the National Weather Service to issue a flash-flood warning for areas near the Tittabawassee River, with downstream effects expected from Midland to Saginaw.

Residents in nearby towns, including Edenville, Sanford and Midland, were evacuated. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said at a news conference on Tuesday that downtown Midland, with a population of more than 41,000, could be under nine feet of water by Wednesday morning.

About 10,000 people were evacuating from Midland, and about 1,000 more residents in townships outside of the city were ordered to leave their homes, Bridgette Gransden, a Midland County spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

“More homes than that could have been affected,” she said.

Credit…Ryan Kaleto, via Reuters

On Wednesday, the Weather Service said that the Tittabawassee River had reached 34.72 feet just before 9 a.m., a full 10 feet above flood levels, and that it was continuing to rise. The service said that life-threatening flooding along the river would continue during the day. Bridges across the river were closed and many roads were under water, Midland County said.

While imploring residents to take the threat seriously and evacuate immediately, Ms. Whitmer said they should continue to observe precautions related to the coronavirus, including wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. She acknowledged that distancing would be difficult in shelters that had been set up in the area.

“To go through this in the midst of a global pandemic is almost unthinkable,” she said. “But we are here, and to the best of our ability we are going to navigate this together.”

In Sanford, a village of about 580 people in Midland County, water coursed through the streets, video from local news agencies showed. Some single-story structures were submerged nearly over doorways, and water had swept across a bridge over the Tittabawassee River, photos and video showed.

Midland County public schools were taking in people who had evacuated, including large crowds of older residents, the county’s superintendent of public schools, Michael Sharrow said on Twitter.

“Tough to see them go through this,” he wrote, posting photos of residents and supplies in a school gymnasium.

It was the second time in 24 hours that residents were told to evacuate. Four to seven inches of rain drenched the area on Sunday and Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

Dow Chemical Company, based in Midland, has activated its emergency operations center and will be adjusting operations, Rachelle Schikorra, a spokeswoman, told The Associated Press.

Ms. Whitmer said on Tuesday night that thousands of people still needed to evacuate and that the scale of the disaster would not be known until late Wednesday morning.

“This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” she said. “I feel like I’ve said that a lot over the last number of weeks. But this truly is a historic event that is playing out in the midst of another historic event.”

Christine Hauser contributed reporting.

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