EDENVILLE, Mich. – Two breached dams caused by several days of rainfall and rising water on Tuesday forced the evacuation of about 10,000 people in mid-Michigan, where the governor said one downtown could be “under approximately 9 feet of water” by morning.
For the second time in less than 24 hours, families living along two lakes and a river were ordered Tuesday to leave home.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for locations along the Tittabawassee River after the breach at the Edenville Dam in Midland County, about 140 miles north of Detroit and the Sanford Dam, about seven miles downriver from Edenville.
“Extremely dangerous flash flooding is ongoing along the Tittabawassee River in Midland county due to catastrophic dam failures at the Edenville and Sanford dams,“ the weather service said on its website, noting that anyone near the river should seek higher ground immediately, be prepared for immediate evacuations, and not drive into flooded roadways. “This flooding will continue all along the length of the river in Midland county, and possibly extending into Saginaw county where a Flash Flood Watch is also in effect.“
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer late Tuesday declared a state of emergency for Midland County and urged residents threatened by the flooding to evacuate the area. She said shelters have opened across the county and are available to residents who need a place to go.
“This is unlike anything we’ve seen in Midland County,” she said. ”If you have a family member or loved one who lives in another part of the state, go there now.“
Whitmer said downtown Midland faced an especially serious flooding threat. “In the next 12 to 15 hours, downtown Midland could be under approximately 9 feet of water. We are anticipating an historic high water level.”
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.
The evacuations include the towns of Edenville, Sanford and parts of the city of Midland, which has 42,000 people, according to Selina Tisdale, spokeswoman for Midland County.
“People are communicating well and looking after each other and their loved ones,” Tisdale said. “We’re heartbroken for those with lots of home and property damage.”
The evacuations in Michigan followed days of heavy rains in parts of the Midwest that also brought flooding to Chicago and other parts of Illinois, Ohio and other states.
“We were back at home and starting to feel comfortable that things were calming down,” said Catherine Sias, who lives about 1 mile from the Edenville Dam and left home early Tuesday morning. “All of a sudden we heard the fire truck sirens going north toward the dam.”
Sias, 45, said emergency alerts then began coming on her cell phone and people started calling to make sure they were safe.
“While packing, there were tons of police and fire trucks going up and down the roads,” she added. “As far as I know, all of our neighbors got out.”
M-30, the state highway trunkline that’s also the main road through Edenville and the route Sias was using to evacuate, was backed up with vehicles.
While driving, she saw the rushing Tittabawassee River. “It was very dramatic, very fast and full of debris,” she said.
Edenville Dam holds back Wixom Lake. Officials also were watching the Sanford Dam south of Edenville. The city of Midland, which includes the main plant of Dow Chemical, sits on the banks of the Tittabawassee River about 8 miles away from that dam.
Dow Chemical Co. 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.
Earlier, Midland County 911 sent out a series of alerts saying the Edenville and Sanford dams were at risk of failing.
Midland County Emergency Management later said that the dams were “structurally sound.” It said water flowing through the dam spillgates couldn’t be controlled, however, so evacuation measures remained in place.
In 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked the license of the company that operated the Edenville Dam due to non-compliance issues that included spillway capacity and the inability to pass the most severe flood reasonably possible in the area.
The Edenville Dam, which was built in 1924, was rated in unsatisfactory condition in 2018 by the state. The Sanford Dam, which was built in 1925, received a fair condition rating.
Both dams are in the process of being sold.
There were 19 high hazard dams in unsatisfactory or poor condition in Michigan in 2018, ranking 20th among the 45 states and Puerto Rico for which The Associated Press obtained condition assessments.
Two area schools had been opened Tuesday morning after the initial evacuation, but people who had been at one of the schools left by early afternoon.
Red Cross worker Tom Restgate. who had been helping residents of the area seek shelter from the threat of rising waters was still at one of the school when he received an alert over his cellphone that “the dam … it breached.”
Heavy rains also caused flooding in parts of northwestern Indiana, including Crown Point – the Lake County seat – where about seven inches fell over the weekend.
Floodwaters swelled quickly on Sunday when 1 inch of rain fell within 15 minutes, swamping streets and sending water into basements and homes, including Mayor David Uran’s residence.
Those waters receded Monday, but Uran and many other residents were continuing to clean up the watery mess on Tuesday, said Uran’s chief of staff, Greg Falkowski.
“He got between 2 and 3 feet in his basement, so that’s what he’s working on right now,” Falkowski said Tuesday afternoon.
In Chicago, water that flooded some areas downtown was receding on Tuesday, but Larry Langford, a fire department spokesman, said that he did not expect power to be restored at the iconic Willis Tower for days because the rains caused the building’s subbasements to fill with as much as 25 feet of water. The building was closed to tenants and visitors.
Flood warnings in Michigan were issued following widespread rainfall of up to 4 inches since Sunday, according to the National Weather Service. Heavy runoff pushed rivers higher.
“A lot of the rainfall came and hit the Saginaw Valley over the last 48 hours,” meteorologist Andrew Arnold said Tuesday morning. “For the most part, the rain is over.”
The weather system was moving into Indiana, Ohio, parts of Illinois and the Tennessee Valley, Arnold said.
More flooding was forecast for parts of the Tittabawassee River, which was at 26.5 feet Tuesday morning. It was expected to crest Wednesday morning at about 30 feet. Flood stage is 24 feet.
Just to the north in Gladwin County, the weather service issued a flash flood warning for the Cedar River below the Chappel Dam. And other parts of the state saw isolated flooding following heavy rains in recent days.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.