Why is Flooding in Michigan So Severe?

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On May 20, two dams failed in central Michigan, forcing 11,000 people to rapidly evacuate their homes at a time when stay-at-home orders are dominating American life. After the failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams, which were built to contain the Tittabawassee River and separate its water into two separate lakes, waist-deep flood waters began rushing into Midland, Michigan. Aerial images taken before and after the dam breach show just how much flooding has occurred.

Local officials began warning nearby residents early on May 19 about the potential for the hydroelectric dam containing Wixom Lake to break. That evening, the dam officially failed following heavy rain that elevated the lake’s water well above its usual levels. At its peak, the several days of rain that accounted for this increase in lake water elevation caused the Tittabawassee River to crest at 35.05 feet during the afternoon of May 20. In video footage supplementing the aerial images taken as the dam first failed, water can be seen rapidly draining from Wixom Lake as the breached dam wall gives way.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who has made headlines for being targeted by President Trump upon not scaling back her stay-at-home orders following local protests, has said that she expects Midland, Michigan to be submerged under nine feet of water due to the dam failures. Gov. Whitmer declared a local emergency on the evening of May 19 and ordered widespread evacuations in and around Midland, a city of nearly 42,000 people

By nightfall on May 20, some of the water that rushed into Midland from the Tittabawassee River had begun receding. In turn, some local officials have stated that the dams containing the Tittabawassee River did not completely fail. Midland City Manager Brad Kaye has said that as water levels in Midland decrease, there may be reason to believe that the dams remained partially intact. However, Midland spokeswoman Selina Crosby Tisdale advised residents to stay out of town for several more days.

Mandatory evacuations during the COVID-19 pandemic have raised the question of how Midland residents endangered by flooding can safely evacuate without experiencing the interpersonal contact against which public health officials advise. Michigan officials have said that temporary evacuation shelters have been set up to ensure six feet of social distance between people who have fled there. Additionally, the state says it has provided shelter workers with equipment for taking temperatures and regularly checking people for possible COVID-19 symptoms. Gov. Whitmey has additionally said that emergency orders related to the ongoing flooding will supersede her previous pandemic-related orders.

In 2018, federal regulators revoked the license of one of the dams that failed. Thereafter, Michigan’s state government took control of the dam and declared, after an inspection, that the dam was in good working condition. The dam and its transition to state control have lied at the center of an ongoing lawsuit alleging improper environmental practices by a local hydroelectric company. That company now claims that the Michigan state government forced it to raise Wixom Lake’s water levels last month. Gov. Whitmer has called for an investigation.

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