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Detroit issues emergency order to place sandbags amid historic water levels

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, left, is given a tour May 5 of flood-damaged areas around the canal that separates Harbor Island and Klenk Island by Judge Deborah Thomas who lives on the canal, in Detroit. The persistent issues are prompting officials to require sandbags at city sites.

Detroit — The city has issued an emergency order giving work crews the right to access the exterior of privately owned properties on the city's east side as it gears up to fill and place thousands of sandbags to stave off flooding amid historic water levels.

If the bags are removed without the city's consent, residents could face costly blight tickets, or even jail time, Detroit officials warned in a Wednesday news release.

The city on Wednesday noted record water levels weeks before Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River crest have prompted Detroit to step up efforts to prevent river and canal waters from flooding homes and streets in major areas of the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. 

David Bell, the city's director of Building Safety, Engineering and Environmental Department, on Wednesday morning issued the order allowing workers to place the sandbags as needed. If residents remove the bags, they could face a $500 blight ticket and possibly a misdemeanor charge that could result in jail time, the city said. 

“While they may pose an inconvenience, the bags we are placing are to help protect residents’ homes and removing them at this time would allow the flood waters to pour into the neighborhood,” Detroit's Chief Operating Officer Hakim Berry said in a statement. 

Berry added that the order "is necessary because the stakes, along with the water levels, are becoming higher."

Wednesday's order comes after workers from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department as well as the city's Department of Public Works and mayor's office have worked since the July 4 holiday weekend, clearing storm drains and placing barriers.

Despite those efforts, the city said, street and home flooding has remained a major concern in some areas.

The city intends to manage the short-term effort to keep water levels from flooding the neighborhood by placing sandbags in areas identified through a survey of low spots along the seawall and banks on Thursday.

Larry Davenpor is in need of the sandbags. He lives along one of the canals on Lakewood near Scripps in the Jefferson Chalmers area, where some of the worst flooding has been felt. He has a 33-foot Mariner boat in the back of his house, where the water levels are nearly up to his retaining wall.

"When I talk to some of the neighbors that's been here, they're telling me that it hasn't been this bad in a while," Davenport said. "It's a little discouraging, but when the water wasn't a problem, it offers you so much to be here. I'm loving it, but I guess this is the price you pay."

Workers were seen filling bags Wednesday with sand in Alfred Ford Park, which is adjacent to the neighborhood that has seen the worst flooding.

Brad Dick, a city group executive for services and infrastructure, was at the park meeting with city officials to plan out how the bags would be distributed. The water rose higher than expected, so more bags are needed to keep the water at bay, he said.

"Now we're building secondary walls behind the original walls," Dick said. "We're going in and insisting we put the bags in this time because if you don't have sandbags or a proper sea wall ... as you can see, Scripps over here, it's flooded. It will continue to be an issue throughout the summer as lake levels are historically high."

Gary Brown, the director of Detroit's water department, said that crews have strategically blocked catch basins in some areas away from homes that don't significantly affect the public to reduce some of the demand on the sewer system.

“This, of course, is a temporary but necessary measure until we are able to stop the floodwaters from entering the combined sewer system and they eventually begin to recede,” Brown said. “At this point this is not just about protecting people’s homes and personal property. That is a major focus, but it’s also about reducing the demand on our wet-weather pumping and treatment facilities."

The latest concerns come after record-setting rainfall in April that swamped homes and prompted the closure of a stretch of the Southfield Freeway in both directions. The conditions brought the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair, whose levels were at 30-year highs, over seawalls and into neighborhoods.

Jefferson Chalmers was among the hardest-hit neighborhoods after water poured over canal barriers. The breach prompted a call from city leaders for volunteers to fill and stack some 50,000 sandbags.

Janice Ellison, 71, is also happy to see the sandbags coming in from the city. Ellison, who lives on Harbor street right along the canal, remembers a time in the 1980s when the area flooded heavily. 

"This is worse than it was back then," she said. "Much worse."

For information about the city's flooding response, visit