Dual dam failure in US state causes ‘devastating’ floods

Updated May 22, 2020


MIDLAND (Michigan, US): A satellite image shows a flooded high school.—Reuters
MIDLAND (Michigan, US): A satellite image shows a flooded high school.—Reuters

MIDLAND: 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 on Thursday, as Governor Gretchen Whitmer expressed hope President Donald Trump 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, 225 kilometres north of Detroit, following what the National Weather Service called catastrophic dam failures at the Edenville Dam, about 32 kilometres northwest of Midland, and the Sanford Dam, about 14 kilometres 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.

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.

The nearly century-old Edenville Dam has been the target of lengthy investigations by federal regulators, who revoked the facility’s licence 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 on 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 Hydros 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 National Weather Service said communities farther downstream should brace for flooding in the coming days. A flood warning was in effect on Thursday along the Tittabawassee River from Midland downstream into Saginaw, and flooding in that area was possible through the weekend.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2020