Environment

'Catastrophic' flooding underway as dam failures in Michigan force thousands to evacuate

Key Points
  • The failure of the Edenville Dam and the Sanford Dam in Michigan late Tuesday has brought record-setting flooding to nearby communities as thousands of residents evacuate their homes. 
  • Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an emergency declaration for the state and warned that downtown Midland could be under approximately 9 feet of water on Wednesday. 
  • More than 10,000 people have been evacuated. Response teams are screening people arriving at evacuation shelters for the coronavirus. 
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Heavy rainfall causes two dams to fail in Michigan

The failure of two dams in Michigan driven by heavy rainfall late Tuesday has brought record-setting flooding to nearby communities as thousands of residents evacuate their homes. 

The collapse of the Edenville Dam and the Sanford Dam, about 140 miles north of Detroit, has released floodwaters that have inundated houses and businesses along the Tittabawassee River and prompted the National Weather Service to issue a rare flash-flood emergency.

The Tittabawassee River, which has already reached a record height of nearly 35 feet as of 9 a.m. on Wednesday and continues to rise rapidly, is forecast to crest 38 feet by 8 p.m. tonight, according to the National Weather Service. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an emergency declaration for the state and warned that downtown Midland could be under approximately 9 feet of water on Wednesday. 

"This is one of those nightmare scenarios that meteorologists hope never happen," meteorologist Eric Holthaus wrote in a tweet. "We are in a climate emergency."

An aerial view of flooding as water overruns Sanford Dam, Michigan, U.S. in this May 19, 2020 still frame obtained from social media video.
TC Vortex | via REUTERS

Dow Chemical's main plant is located on Midland's riverbank, a facility that's linked to a Superfund site because of the presence of the carcinogenic chemical dioxin in the riverbed downstream of the plant.

The flooding in Michigan has already reached the Dow Chemical facility. The headquarters were mostly evacuated and the company said on its Facebook page that it has activated its local emergency operations center and flood preparedness plan.

Flooding from extreme weather in the U.S. has previously inundated chemical plants and released deadly carcinogens into nearby neighborhoods. 

Heavy rainfall and older, weaker dam infrastructure led to the collapse of the two dams. The Edenville Dam, built in 1924, was rated in unsatisfactory condition in 2018 by the state, and the Sanford Dam, built a year later, was rated in fair condition. 

 

Authorities are urging residents to evacuate amid life-threatening dangers and are also asking people to wear masks and socially distance to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

More than 10,000 people have been evacuated. Response teams are screening people arriving at evacuation shelters and providing protective equipment in an attempt to avoid disease spread. 

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

People help each other travel from one home to another using an inflatable raft on Oakridge Road on Wixom Lake, Tuesday, May 19, 2020 in Beaverton, Mich. People living along two mid-Michigan lakes and parts of a river have been evacuated following several days of heavy rain that produced flooding and put pressure on dams in the area.
Katy Kildee | Midland Daily News | AP