Midland County dams breached, thousands evacuate

Wednesday, May 20, 2020 - 2:33pm

Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency for Midland County Wednesday morning.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency for Midland County Wednesday morning. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Michigan Executive Office

Severe flooding hit Midland County after the Edenville and Sanford Dams breached on Tuesday, forcing thousands of central Michigan residents living along the Tittabawassee River to evacuate. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency during a press conference Tuesday evening, instructing residents to evacuate immediately. 

In the press conference, Whitmer said downtown Midland could be under approximately nine feet of water in the next 12-15 hours, a record-high water level. This comes amid Whitmer’s stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Tonight I issued an emergency declaration to ensure that state and local officials have the resources that they need in order to respond to the flooding,” Whitmer said.

Three shelters have opened for Midland residents needing a place to go, including Midland High School, Bullock Creek High School and the West Midland Family Center. 

Despite the immediate evacuation to local shelters, Whitmer emphasized the need to maintain social distancing as best as possible. 

“To go through this in the midst of a global pandemic is almost unthinkable,” Whitmer said. “But we are here, and to the best of our ability, we are going to navigate this together. So please, to the best of your ability, continue to wear a face covering when you go to a shelter or stay with a friend or relative.”

When asked if the state is prepared financially to support residents during this emergency, Whitmer stated the current focus is on saving lives. Further discussion on financial implications and flood insurance is to come, according to Whitmer.

“There’s no doubt that all of the stressors that we are under come with a cost,” Whitmer said. “We will work through what that is, but right now, we are in the midst of trying to save as many lives as we can, and get people out. But there is no doubt we will have a follow up conversation on this I’m sure.”

University of Michigan experts have also weighed in on this situation. Richard Norton, professor of urban and regional planning, discussed in Michigan News how this incident reveals how current floodplain maps are outdated and are not suitable for the larger storms.

"So, storms are getting bigger and more frequent, the infrastructure we have in place to handle flood waters is under-designed for those storms, and the maps and policies we have in place to minimize and manage flooding—and keep people out of harm's way—are increasingly outdated,” Norton said. “These kinds of events should be clarion calls to communities to revisit their floodplain maps and their plans for handling the increasing storminess we will all be experiencing."

Sue Anne Bell, assistant professor of nursing, explained in Michigan News the difficulties with managing this natural disaster on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what is needed to combat both challenges simultaneously. 

"Planning for and responding to any disaster is challenging enough, layering a pandemic on top of that presents a whole other range of issues to address," Bell said. "The resources needed to support Michigan communities affected by the dam failures are already focused on COVID. Ultimately, the goals of both pandemic response and disaster response are to prevent harm and loss of life, and those two response systems will have to merge to address both at the same time — a huge challenge but one where the choice is clear."

Summer News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at krizheng@umich.edu.