Panel: With infrastructure funding available, communities need to 'use it smartly'

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Detroit — Researchers from three Michigan universities met with local officials Monday to discuss ways to address the storm-related home flooding experienced in Detroit and other southeast Michigan cities, months after the second "500 year rain event" in seven years left thousands in the region with drowned basements and downed power lines. 

Experts from the University Research Corridor gathered on the Wayne State University campus to present research on updating outdated infrastructure to make communities more resilient in the face of extreme weather events that are exacerbated by climate change. 

These include handling storm water, improving pumping stations and addressing physical and mental health impacts of these events on historically marginalized and low-income communities. 

Coverage of flooding:

Disaster relief:Michigan receiving $86 million in federal funds for June flooding

Detroit program:$15M effort to curb basement backups in flood-prone neighborhoods

Infrastructure funds:Whitmer signs $4.7 billion supplemental spending plan

"The problem is that we're impoverishing people that are already at the edge of poverty in a series of Detroit communities," said Lyke Thompson, director of Wayne State's Center for Urban Studies. 

The University Research Corridor is made up of researchers from Wayne State, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University who work in industries like infrastructure, water and mobility.

They were joined at the roundtable discussion Monday by state Reps. Joe Tate and Tyrone Carter, both D-Detroit, and Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash. 

To kick off the discussion, Tate held up a photo he said he took Monday morning of a manhole cover at Jefferson and Dickerson that was installed in 1904, and still had the name "Village of Fairview" engraved in it, to illustrate the need to update and upgrade the city's infrastructure. Fairview was annexed into Detroit in 1907. 

Carter said addressing these infrastructure needs was an opportunity to make comprehensive improvements across the board and "work on something that is not urban, rural, Republican, Democrat." 

"We know that water always wins, as it has the time and energy to find the paths of least resistance, which are often our basements or other infrastructure," said William Shuster, chair of the Wayne State University civil and environmental engineering department. “We need to respond to the way that water plays this game and give it other options."

Flooding needs to be addressed in comprehensive frameworks that deal with other infrastructure issues plaguing the state, according to Chuck Hersey, a consultant working with Oakland County, including mobility and roads, to ensure that a fix for one does not create problems for another. 

Communities need to also collaborate to address flooding on a regional level, Nash said. When a storm moves through an area and impacts it, he added as an example, its neighbors can change the flow of water in their pipes to try and avoid or limit floods.  

Hersey also said that underinvestment in infrastructure does not save the government money, but leads to repairs being more expensive in the long run. 

The money for large-scale infrastructure repair is available to Michigan and should be used to mitigate future impacts of severe weather, according to Britany Affolter-Caine, executive director of URC. 

"We are in a unique time in where we're getting a ton of money and communities are sort of staring down at an influx of infrastructure dollars and COVID dollars," said Affolter-Caine. "... We have to use it smartly." 

The influx of money includes $57.5 million that Detroit received in community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The way that money is used by the city will be crucial moving forward, according to Joshua Elling, CEO of Jefferson East Inc, a neighborhood organization that serves low-income populations on the city's east side. 

Attendees focused much of the conversation on east side neighborhoods such as Jefferson Chalmers, which due to their proximity to the Detroit River saw widespread flooding in recent years. 

"The east side of Detroit, east side of Dearborn, we bear the brunt of downstream flow for basically 75 years of unmitigated sprawl," said Elling.