It could be days before the full scope of damage from flooding in Central Michigan that submerged houses, washed out roads and threatened a Superfund site is apparent, authorities warned Thursday, as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer expressed hope the president will soon sign a federal emergency declaration.
Some of the floodwaters from heavy rains that overtook two dams retreated, but much remained underwater, including in Midland, the headquarters of Dow Chemical Co. And floodwaters continued to threaten downstream communities.
“The damage is truly devastating to see how high the water levels are, to see roofs barely visible in parts of Midland, and to see a lake that has been drained in another part,” said Whitmer, who toured Midland County on Wednesday.
The flooding forced about 11,000 people to evacuate their homes in the Midland area, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) north of Detroit, following what the National Weather Service called “catastrophic dam failures” at the Edenville Dam, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Midland, and the Sanford Dam, about 9 miles (14 kilometers) northwest of the city.
Whitmer said she spoke briefly with President Donald Trump on Wednesday, and that her office had been in contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about securing federal aid for the area.
She said she hoped Trump would sign a federal emergency declaration during his visit to a Ford manufacturing plant in Michigan on Thursday.
“He did say, ’If I get an opportunity to go to Midland, would you consider joining me,’” said Whitmer, adding that Trump asked about casualties and damage. “I said, ’Of course I would.’”
No flood-related deaths or injuries have been reported, officials said.
The floodwaters mixed with containment ponds at a Dow Chemical Co. plant and could displace sediment from a downstream Superfund site, though the company said there was no risk to people or the environment.
Dow said the containment ponds held only water, and it has detected no chemical releases from the plant in Midland where the company was founded, though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said state officials would evaluate the plant when they’re able. Once the flooding recedes, Dow will be required to assess the Superfund site — contaminated with dioxins the company dumped in the last century — to determine if any contamination was released, the EPA said.
Midland City Manager Brad Kaye said it was fortunate that the Tittabawassee River crested at just over 35 feet (11 meters), about 3 feet (90 centimeters) below the forecast level.
Kaye warned that it could take four or five days for the floodwaters to recede, and asked residents to use caution when traveling or returning to their homes.
“Don’t rush out thinking that you can just rush back to your homes, because the water is still there … this is not over,” Kaye said.
Most of the water drained from Wixom Lake in Midland County’s Hope Township after the Edenville Dam failed, and residents wondered Thursday when, or if, water will return.
“I’m sick about it. You know, I mean, it’s just sickening,” said resident Glenn Hart, 66, who surveyed the lake with his grandson.
“Usually, that’s 21 feet deep out there in the cut,” Hart said, pointing from his backyard to the muddy ground that used to be the lake bottom. “Good fishing area. Well, there’s no fish now. And we don’t know when we’ll get water again.”
Mark Musselman’s home is a total loss. He planned to fly to Florida later Thursday, then drive his motor home back, set it up in the driveway and oversee the tearing down of his house.
“Well, everything’s destroyed pretty much,” Musselman said. “You know, we had no way of knowing. We had plenty of time. We could have got everything out.
“But we just thought that, you know, it was just going to come up. It wouldn’t be any big deal,” he said.
The nearly century-old Edenville Dam has been the target of lengthy investigations by federal regulators, who revoked the facility’s license over safety violations two years ago. Officials have said the Sanford Dam was overflowing but that the extent of structural damage isn’t yet known.
Whitmer said Wednesday that the state would investigate the operators of the dams and “pursue every line of legal recourse we have.”
In 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked Boyce Hydro’s license to operate the Edenville Dam due to non-compliance issues that included spillway capacity and the inability to handle the most severe flood reasonably possible. That year, the state rated the dam, built in 1924, in unsatisfactory condition.
The Sanford Dam, which was built in 1925, received a fair condition rating. Both are in the process of being sold.
The 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.
The National Weather Service said communities farther downstream should brace for flooding in the coming days. A flood warning was in effect Thursday along the Tittabawassee River from Midland downstream into Saginaw, and flooding in that area was possible through the weekend.
The flooding washed away some roadways, and left others impassable. Selina Tisdale, spokeswoman for the city of Midland, said roads must be inspected for damage that could make traveling hazardous.
“We’re working to get information to folks on when they can return to their houses, but stress that a lot of infrastructure gets compromised,” Tisdale said.