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Michigan will 'hold people responsible' for dam failures, Whitmer says

Frank Witsil, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Weather News

Speaking outside Midland High School, where mid-Michigan residents had sought shelter from two dam failures, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sought to reassure residents that help was on the way, and that, so far, there were no known casualties.

"What I can tell you, you've already seen from the pictures," she said after taking an aerial tour of the area. "It's devastating."

The rising waters, she said, are damaging, and had forced the evacuation of thousands who were caught in the path of the floodwaters that are still rising and expected to crest at about 8 p.m.

She also made it clear that the state would be investigating what happened to cause the dams to fail. Regulators had revoked the Edenville dam's license in 2018 over an ability to handle big floods.

Whitmer said the dam failures were a known threat and the state will be reviewing "every legal recourse that we have" because the damage requires that we "hold people responsible."

But the governor also said "even in the hardest-hit spots there are sources of inspiration," praising the work of first responders, volunteers, and residents who acted quickly to get out of their homes.

About 130 National Guard soldiers and more than 40 specialized vehicles were dispatched on Tuesday to help, with more than 200 more on the way.

Still, the timing of the flooding is especially precarious. It comes amid a pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 5,000 Michiganders and left about a third of the state's workforce unemployed.

On Tuesday, the rapidly rising water overtook dams, and forced about 10,000 people in central Michigan, sending them to shelters and to stay with relatives, potentially adding to the spread of coronavirus.

Wednesday, rainfall -- combined with dam overflows -- caused the waters of the Tittabawassee River, surpassing the high point of 33.9 feet in 1986, what the Midland Daily News said some called the state's worst natural disaster in modern history.

Experts, Whitmer said, are describing the flood as "a 500-year event" that will have a major impact on the state, and she promised to take aggressive action in seeking help from the federal agencies, particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Whitmer added that she hopes that as a result of the dire situation, the state and federal government will be able to work quickly and cut through any red tape holding it up.

"I feel like I've said this a lot over the last 10 weeks, but this is an event unlike anything we've seen before and we've got to continue to work together to observe best practices and do our part to help one another."

She urged wearing masks and continuing to social distance.

Still, while the mood was serious, there were a few moments of levity, with Whitmer pausing to light-heartedly scolding the crowd: "A lot of you are standing too close to one another."

"We're going to get through this," Whitmer said. "It's a tough time, sure, but we are going to get through this. We know that tough times don't last. But tough people do."

Last night, about 100 people slept on cots and air mattresses spread across the basketball floor at Midland High School, beds were kept 6 feet apart because of social distancing.

Dave Percha, who was evacuated from his Midland, said he coronavirus left him unemployed for two months because of the coronavirus, and now he is homeless.

"I'm just waiting for the meteor," he added Wednesday morning.

 

In addition, to pandemic fears, there are now environmental contamination concerns.

Midland, a city of 42,000, is about 8 miles downstream from the Sanford Dam and faced an especially serious flooding threat. Dow Chemical Co.'s main plant sits on the city's riverbank.

Late Tuesday, Whitmer warned that downtown Midland could be "under approximately 9 feet of water." By early Wednesday, river water levels continued to rise, reaching a new record -- and are expected to crest Wednesday evening.

Families living along the Tittabawassee River and connected lakes in Midland County were ordered to leave home and seek shelter, heightening concerns during the pandemic.

Wednesday morning, water that was several feet high covered some streets near the river in downtown Midland, including riverside parkland, and reaching a hotel and parking lots.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump, who is scheduled to visit Michigan on Thursday, posted his support on Twitter for efforts to respond to flooding in mid-Michigan that has resulted in thousands of evacuations.

"My team is closely monitoring the flooding in Central Michigan -- Stay SAFE and listen to local officials," Trump posted about 10:20 a.m. "Our brave First Responders are once again stepping up to serve their fellow citizens, THANK YOU!"

He also said in a separate post that his administration had already activated military and Federal Emergency Management Agency response teams, but said Whitmer -- who Trump has criticized in the past -- "must now 'set you free' to help."

Whitmer had said at a news briefing late Tuesday she had contacted federal officials for help and activated the National Guard, so it wasn't immediately clear what Trump was trying to say by saying she needs to take some additional action.

The National Weather Service is urging anyone near the river to seek higher ground following "catastrophic dam failures" at the Edenville Dam, about 140 miles north of Detroit, and the Sanford Dam, about 7 miles downriver.

The governor has declared a state of emergency for Midland County and urged residents threatened by the flooding to seek out one of several shelters that opened across the county or find a place to stay with friends or relatives.

She also encouraged people to do their best to take precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus, such as wearing a face covering and observing social distancing "to the best of your ability."

On Wednesday, Whitmer added: "When the chips are down, the people of Michigan are able to rise up. We're tough. We're smart, and we care about each other. And so long as that guides our actions, we're going to get through this -- and we're going to get through it together."

(c)2020 Detroit Free Press

Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

GRAPHIC (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): WEA-MICH-FLOODING

 

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