Rapidly rising water overtook dams and forced the evacuation of about 10,000 people in central Michigan, where flooding struck communities along rain-swollen waterways and the governor said downtown Midland could be “under approximately 9ft of water” by Wednesday.
One of the dams, which the National Weather Service said saw “catastrophic” failures, had been under scrutiny by federal regulators since 1999.
The Edenville dam, where there is a hydropower project, is about 140 miles north of Detroit and was built in 1924. Federal regulators revoked the project’s license in 2018, after warning for two decades that it was vulnerable to significant flooding.
“Given Edenville dam’s high hazard potential rating, the potential loss of life and destruction of property and infrastructure is grave should the project not be maintained and operated appropriately, with consequences that could certainly affect the village of Sanford, Northwood University, city of Midland, Michigan, and other areas downstream,” an order from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) said in 2017.
Boyce Hydro acquired the Edenville dam in 2004. It was rated as in unsatisfactory condition by the state 2018. It also owns another dam that failed, the Sanford dam, which was rated in fair condition. Both dams are in the process of being sold.
FERC’s chairman, Neil Chatterjee, said he plans to send a staff engineer to investigate “when it is appropriate and safe to do so”. FERC directed Boyce Hydro to establish an independent investigation team to undertake a forensic analysis of the root cause of the overtopping damage at the Sanford dam. The Edenville dam has been under the state’s jurisdiction since FERC pulled its federal license in 2018.
For the second time in less than 24 hours, families living along the Tittabawassee River and connected lakes in Midland county were ordered on Tuesday evening to leave home.
By Wednesday morning, water that was several feet high covered some streets near the river in downtown Midland, including riverside parkland, and reaching a hotel and parking lots.
Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, said downtown Midland, a city of 42,000, faced an especially serious flooding threat.
She called the event “devastating” on Wednesday at a briefing from Midland high school and said: “Experts are describing this as a 500-year event.”
Whitmer said she intended to ask the federal government formally for support, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema).
Dow Chemical Company’s main plant sits on the city’s riverbank.
“In the next 12 to 15 hours, downtown Midland could be under approximately 9ft of water,” the governor said during a late Tuesday briefing. “We are anticipating an historic high water level.”
Further down the Tittabawassee River, communities in Saginaw county were on alert for flooding, with a flash-flood watch in effect on Wednesday.
Whitmer declared a state of emergency for Midland county and urged residents threatened by the flooding to find a place to stay with friends or relatives or to seek out one of several shelters that opened across the county.
Emergency responders went door-to-door early Tuesday morning warning residents living near the Edenville dam of the rising water. Some residents were able to return home, only to be told to leave again following the dam’s breach several hours later.
The evacuations include the towns of Edenville, Sanford and parts of Midland, according to Selina Tisdale, spokeswoman for Midland county.
John Boothroyd, who lives in Midland, evacuated to his in-laws’ home in Grand Rapids after a state police officer drove through his neighborhood at about midnight warning residents of the emergency. He is in the process of purchasing a new house in another part of town and drove by it as he was leaving.
“It was like a scene from a meteor strike movie, like Armageddon or Deep Impact. There were people just throwing stuff in their cars. There was a line of cars trying to get out of the area they evacuated at least a couple miles down the road,” Boothroyd said. “I’ve never seen that many cars in Midland. It was crazy.”
John Rumpler, an attorney who directs the advocacy group Environment America’s clean water campaign, co-wrote a report warning of thousands of “accidents waiting to happen” where industrial sites in the US are near waterways.
Based on previous floods, including around petrochemical facilities in Houston after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, he said “we have every reason to be concerned that there could be a spread of toxic substances in and around Midland and downstream from there”.
Dow Chemical has activated its emergency operations center and will be adjusting operations as a result of current flood stage conditions, spokeswoman Rachelle Schikorra said in an email.
“Dow Michigan Operations is working with its tenants and Midland County officials and will continue to closely monitor the water levels on the Tittabawassee River,” Schikorra said.