MIDLAND, Mich. — Many Central Michigan residents remained cut off from their homes Thursday even as floodwaters receded, with senior citizens among the scores of displaced people staying in shelters after flooding overwhelmed two dams, submerged homes and washed out roads.
President Donald Trump, who was in Michigan to visit a Ford production plant, signed an emergency declaration authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts.
At Midland High School, 90% of people who slept in the school's gym were senior citizens, said shelter coordinator Jerry Wasserman. He said extra precautions were in place due to the combination of the guests' ages and the coronavirus pandemic.
"We had to deal with COVID and then deal with their angst of what's happened to their house and their pets and all this" Wasserman said Thursday.
In Midland, 61 people spent Wednesday night and Thursday morning in temporary shelters, according to city spokeswoman Selina Tisdale. That number — mostly the elderly and families — dwindled throughout Thursday as floodwaters receded and some residents were able to return home, she said.
Dan Roberts, who was a Midland High student more than a half-century ago, spent a few nights at the shelter and said "anyone else who had a place to go went to elsewhere." He planned to go stay with his sister in the Flint area.
"They've been watching after us carefully. It's been a little hectic, but I would not complain at all," said Roberts, a 70-year-old who lives at the Riverside Place senior living community that was overcome with floodwater.
Much of the area remained underwater, including in Midland, the headquarters of Dow Chemical Co. And floodwaters continued to threaten downstream communities.
It could be days before the full scope of damage can be assessed, officials said. No flood-related deaths or injuries have been reported.
"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 Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who toured Midland County on Wednesday.
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.
The flooding forced about 11,000 people to evacuate their homes in the Midland area, about 140 miles north of Detroit, following what the National Weather Service called "catastrophic dam failures" at the Edenville Dam, about 20 miles northwest of Midland, and the Sanford Dam, about 9 miles northwest of the city.
Wasserman said the uncertainty among those staying at the shelter is "pretty heavy," but he's heartened by the outpouring of support from the community.
"This community just absolutely responded. Overwhelming response," Wasserman said. "And my hat's off to Midland."
Other area residents returned to their homes to find heavy damage. And around Wixom Lake in Midland County's Hope Township, which lost most of its water when the Edenville Dam failed, residents wondered Thursday when, or if, it will be refilled.
"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 two years ago 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.
Officials have said the Sanford Dam, built in 1925, was overflowing but the extent of structural damage isn't yet known. It most recently received a fair condition rating.
Both are in the process of being sold
Whitmer said Wednesday that the state would investigate the operators of the dams and "pursue every line of legal recourse we have."
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.
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. Tisdale 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.
Flood raises fears of pollution at Michigan toxic waste site
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — It took seven years to settle on a plan for cleansing two rivers and floodplains polluted with dioxins from a Dow Chemical Co. plant in central Michigan. The work itself has lasted nearly twice as long, with plenty still to do.
Now, scientists and activists fear some of the progress may have washed away with floodwaters that overwhelmed two dams this week, chasing 11,000 people from homes in and near Midland, the company's headquarters city.
The Tittabawassee River flows past the Dow plant and eventually meets the Saginaw River, which continues into Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay. That 50-mile stretch is tainted with dioxins — highly toxic compounds that researchers say can damage reproductive and immune systems and cause cancer. The area is on the federal Superfund list of hazardous sites.
Regulators and company officials said Thursday it was too early to tell whether the swollen river had damaged spots that had been repaired or swept pollutants farther downstream. Dow said it would inspect each cleanup location as floodwaters recede and sample for new contamination.
The projects "held up remarkably well" during a 2017 flood "and we are confident that we will see a similar outcome this time," spokesman Kyle Bandlow said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it would team with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to evaluate any chemical releases from the plant, although Dow had reported none. Damage from the flood three years ago was "minimal" and required only minor repairs, EPA's regional office in Chicago said.
But a similar outcome is unlikely after this week's considerably bigger flood, said Allen Burton, a professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan.
"There's no reason to expect that everything would remain in the same place after a massive flood like this," Burton said. "No scientist out there would predict that will happen."
Erik Olson, a toxic chemicals specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said floods produced by hurricanes have covered hazardous waste sites and carried contaminated wastes long distances.
"You can think you've contained toxic chemicals to a limited area, but a flood can scour that up and move it," Olson said. "We saw that with Katrina. What happened there is exactly what we're worrying about happening in Midland."
In a report last year, the Government Accountability Office said EPA should take additional steps to safeguard Superfund sites from the effects of climate change, including flooding that might result from heavier downpours. It said 60 percent of Superfund sites not on federal property were vulnerable to floods, storm surge, wildfires, and sea level rise associated with global warming.
Dioxins are byproducts of some of the hundreds of chemicals manufactured over the years at the Dow plant, which began operating in 1897. It now produces silicones used in a variety of home and personal care products and electronics.
The plant also has a small nuclear reactor, used for research, Bandlow said. Dow notified the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday that it had been shut down earlier because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Liquid wastes containing dioxins from the plant were dumped into the river in the early 20th century. The compounds later were incinerated, producing air pollution that settled into sediments, riverbanks and floodplains over decades.
Their discovery along the Tittabawassee River in 2000 sparked a lengthy clash between Dow, regulators and environmental groups over the seriousness of the problem and how to fix it.
Dow began cleanup in 2007, supervised by EPA. The Tittabawassee and its banks were divided into seven segments. The first five are mostly complete. Work on the remaining two began last year.
Thousands of cubic yards of contaminated sediments have been removed and banks have been stabilized. In areas where digging up the dioxins was judged too difficult or impractical, tainted soils were covered with protective mats and deep-rooted plants.
More cleanup is planned along 21 miles of floodplains. EPA expects the Tittabawassee section to be finished next year, followed by work on the Saginaw River.
"We've been feeling pretty confident that this is going to be a successful cleanup," said Terry Miller, chairman of the advocacy group Lone Tree Council and member of a community advisory panel. "But this 500-year flood is a wild card."
Thorough inspections and analysis will be crucial to determine whether the projects are intact and need repairs, he said.
"The post-flood assessments will help identify if any additional cleanup is needed," EPA said.
Environmentalists said they were concerned about releases of pollutants aside from dioxins, although Dow said there had been none.
"The long-term threats to the health and safety of the community are significant, given what we know is in the river and the holding ponds and the Superfund site," said Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.