August 12, 2014 at 1:00 am

Metro Detroit mops up: 'We've never dealt with anything like this before'

Detroit— After suffering through the heaviest one-day rainfall to hit the region in almost 90 years, homeowners, businesses and government officials are now focusing on the monumental cleanup and reconstruction from widespread flooding that closed freeways, ruined basements, forced power outages, and is believed to have caused at least two deaths.

Homeowners in Detroit and its suburbs, many without flood insurance, are dealing with water damage that will set them back thousands of dollars. Hospitals, police facilities and other businesses are scrambling to save equipment and records. About 6,000 residents and businesses were without power late Tuesday, down from 17,000. Cars remain under water. Raw sewage and standing water present possible environmental hazards.

A state of emergency was declared in Wayne County, Ferndale and Warren, a designation that allows federal relief and support. Gov. Rick Snyder said he will look into whether federal aid is available for devastated roadways that include Interstates 75 and 696.

“Let’s make sure we do the assessments, and then we’ll do the follow-up to say what aid and assistance is available,” Snyder said.

The flood was responsible for at least two deaths, both in Warren. A 31-year-old woman was found inside a vehicle that was stranded in about 3 feet of water. Mayor James Fouts said she apparently died of cardiac arrest.

A second woman, 101 years old, was found dead inside her flooded basement, said Warren Deputy Police Commissioner Louis Galasso.

“Her daughter hadn’t heard from her, so she went to check on her and found her in the basement, which was flooded,” Galasso said. “It’s horrible.”

Metro Detroit has experienced problems from floods before, but nothing like the current catastrophe, Michigan Department of Transportation spokeswoman Diane Cross said.

“This whole thing is all so unknown — we’ve never dealt with anything like this before,” Cross said. “We’re facing monumental problems everywhere.”

Late Tuesday, multiple pump house failures kept water levels high on several area freeways, which also were littered with debris, sewage and abandoned vehicles. They include parts of I-75, I-696, I-94 and M-10 in both directions. Problems appeared to be the worst on I-696.

Metro Airport reported 4.57 inches of precipitation Monday, second only to the 4.74 inches which fell on July 31, 1925, according to the National Weather Service. As homeowners and crews worked to fix Monday’s damage, it continued raining Tuesday, exacerbating the problem.

“(Tuesday) started out as a bad day, and hasn’t gotten any better; it’s still raining, and it doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon,” Allen Park Fire Chief Doug LaFond said early Tuesday. His crews rescued 65 students stranded at Baker College near Outer Drive and the Southfield Freeway in the morning.

“The students went to class (Monday night), and the storm hit,” LaFond said. “Outer Drive had 5 to 6 feet of water, so they had to stay the night. We got a call at about 8 this morning asking if we could help them out. It was the first large-scale rescue like that we’ve ever dealt with.”

Portions of nearly all the major freeways in southeast Michigan remained flooded during Tuesday’s afternoon rush hour, causing major traffic backups on alternative routes for the second straight day.

Several spots later reopened, but late Tuesday closures remained at southbound I-75 from 12 Mile to Eight Mile, northbound I-75 from M-8 to 11 Mile, Westbound I-696 from Groesbeck to Dequindre, eastbound I-696 from Woodward to Gratiot, westbound I-94 from Addison to Greenfield and eastbound I-94 from Greenfield to Michigan.

It was unclear when all freeways would reopen, since state transportation officials weren’t sure how long it would take to remove the water — or what problems they would uncover when they did.

Emergency rooms at Oakwood Hospital in Dearborn and Henry Ford Hospital in Wyandotte were closed because of flooding, as was the Detroit Police Firearm Range in Rouge Park. The 2nd Precinct also flooded, Detroit Police Sgt. Michael Woody said.

Snyder ordered more state troopers and other resources to Metro Detroit. Snyder, who interrupted a U.P. trip Tuesday to fly to Lansing and then take a helicopter tour of Metro Detroit before returning to the U.P., said the state has “taken a dramatic series of actions.”

Snyder said state officials will remain in contact with local officials to see what’s needed to help respond to the flooding and its aftermath. He added the state is bringing the “right resources.”

The American Red Cross Southeastern Michigan Chapter said an emergency shelter opened at the Garden City Middle School, 1851 Radcliff, for residents hit by the flooding to find food, first aid and assistance.

“ ...The Southeastern Michigan Chapter will be coordinating with emergency officials and local community partners to help residents impacted by the flood get back on their feet,” said Steve Bosau, regional disaster program officer, said in a statement. “As the water recedes the American Red Cross will help ensure people have means to begin their clean up and recovery.”

During a town hall meeting Tuesday night at the HYPE Recreation Center in Dearborn Heights aimed at helping affected residents, Martin Levesque, Oakwood Healthcare’s manager of infection prevention and control, warned about the health risks of flooded basements.

Residents should wear protective gear when handling drenched items, he said. They should also toss soaked carpet, padding and other non-porous materials since “some things can’t be disinfected and need to be discarded.”

Detroit resident Ray Rutyna, 67, spent all day Tuesday sopping up the 3 inches of water that flooded the basement of his northeast-side home.

“I was down there all day,” he said. “I was surprised how much water was coming in last night — it was coming up through the floor, through the walls. I don’t remember the basement backing up like this for 30 years.”

Kevin and Deborah Kochay of Royal Oak also were busy Tuesday with a power vacuum and a couple of pumps attempting to suck the water from the basement of their home on Roseland Avenue.

“We don’t have flood insurance,” Deborah Kochay said. “We don’t know what this is going to amount to before it’s all done.”

Chris Sutton, who lives next door to the Kochays, estimates he’s looking at a minimum of $10,000 just to replace utilities such as washer, dryers and furnaces.

“That’s just for starters,” said Sutton. “We are going to have to move out for a while — who knows how long? — once we can get someone to come in and do the cleanup. Try to find someone, that’s another thing.”

Cleanup crews from Southfield-based Statewide Disaster Restoration are working furiously to keep up with demand, vice president Jeff Levine said.

“This is a disaster on a scale unlike anything we’ve seen in the Metro Detroit area,” Levine said. “We have hundreds of people in our queue, and we might not get to them for two, three or four days. Right now, our focus is on hospitals, nursing homes and schools. I feel really bad for the homeowners who can’t get anyone to come out quickly.”

Curious residents added to the widespread problems, Cross said.

“Some people are treating this like a tourist event,” she said. “People are driving and walking past barriers so they can take pictures. One woman almost got hit by a semi because she was going across a roadway. I understand human curiosity, but people shouldn’t endanger themselves, and endanger emergency crews that might have to help them.”

Staff Writers George Hunter, Tom Greenwood, Mike Martindale, Lauren Abdel-Razzaq, Gary Heinlein, Tony Briscoe, Oralandar Brand-Williams, Joel Kurth and Mark Hicks contributed.

Road investigators survey the support pillars at the I-75 and I696 interchange in Royal Oak on Tuesday. Flood waters closed the I-75 at the I-696 as road crews continue the clean up. / Max Ortiz / The Detroit News
The home of Gerald Sabatini in Plymouth is next to Tonquish Creek, four ... (Courtesy of Gerald Sabatini)