Whitmer: Midland could be under 9 feet of water during historic flooding

Midland — The city of Midland is facing rising waters of a 500-year flood as residents evacuated Tuesday and the governor declared a state emergency after two dams breached in mid-Michigan. 

Edenville and Sanford dams failed, and flash flood emergencies were in effect for the entire stretch of the Tittabawassee River in Midland County. Evacuations were ordered after the catastrophic dam failures due to heavy rains sparked flooding, according to the National Weather Service.

The river was at 30.49 feet at 9 p.m. Tuesday and was expected to reach 38 feet by Wednesday. The flood stage for the Tittabawassee is 24 feet. 

"Record flooding likely along the Tittabawassee River from Edenville down to Midland," the National Weather Service said on Twitter.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency late Tuesday night for Midland County, warning that "in the next 12 to 15 hours, Downtown Midland could be under approximately 9 feet of water."

“If you have not evacuated the area, do so now and get somewhere safe,” Whitmer said. “This is unlike anything we’ve seen in Midland County. If you have a family member or loved one who lives in another part of the state, go there now.

"If you don’t, go to one of the shelters that have opened across the county. I want to thank the emergency responders, Michigan National Guard members, and the Michigan State Police on the ground helping residents evacuate. Stay safe, and take care of each other.” 

The American Red Cross also was activated, Whitmer said.

The failure of the Edenville Dam on Wixom Lake in Midland County prompted the county's emergency central dispatch to order Edenville and Sanford residents to evacuate immediately. Heavy rains Sunday and Monday caused flooding and put pressure on the structures.

Residents of the two mid-Michigan communities were urged not to call 911 unless they were unable to evacuate. They were instructed to use Saginaw Road to travel east and west, as U.S. 10 is closed due to flooding, Midland County Central Dispatch said. More than 50 roads closed because of the rising waters.

At 8:35 p.m., county dispatch reported "uncontrolled flow through the emergency spillway and the imminent failure" of the Sanford Dam on the Tittabawassee, according to the National Weather Service, which issued a flash flood emergency through early Wednesday.

The south and west sides of Midland as well as the village of Sanford and Dow Chemical were evacuated; Midland's Mid-Michigan Medical Center planned to move up to 150 patients, Whitmer said.

The evacuation efforts were expected to displace as many as 10,000 residents, or about a quarter of Midland's population, City Manager Brad Kaye said.

Shelters were set up for evacuating residents at sites in Midland County: 

  • Midland High School at 1301 Eastlawn
  • Meridian Junior High School at 3475 N. Meridian Road
  • Bullock Creek High School at 1420 S. Badour 
  • West Midland Family Center at 4011 W. Isabella

"To go through this in the midst of a global pandemic is almost unthinkable. But we are here and to the best of our ability, we are going to navigate this together," the governor said during a press conference at the state emergency operations center in Lansing. She urged evacuees to wear face coverings and practice social distancing, even in shelters.

"This is unlike anything we’ve seen ever before," Whitmer said. "I feel like I’ve said that a lot over the last number of weeks. But this is truly an historic event that is playing out in the midst of another historic event, and so we need to make sure that we keep our wits about us and work on this together."

With the dam failures, "we are looking at flood heights that are approximately 4.5 to 5 feet higher than the 1986 flood that we had, which is the highest we have ever had in the city of Midland," Kaye said at a press conference shortly before Whitmer's address.

"The consequence of living in a river valley, of course, is that we have to deal with river floods at times. This, however, is something that would be unprecedented. Whereas the 1986 flood … was a 100-year flood, what we are looking is an event that is the equivalent of a 500-year flood. So something that is extremely rare, it’s extremely catastrophic and quite dangerous."

He warned the city's infrastructure would be "inundated," forcing the shutdown of some systems, which would lead to sewer backups. 

"This is going to be a tough one," he said. "This is something we have not seen as a city."

The Edenville Dam was rated in unsatisfactory condition in 2018 by the state, while the Sanford Dam downstream received a fair condition rating. Both dams are in the process of being sold.

There were 19 high hazard dams in unsatisfactory or poor condition in Michigan in 2018, ranking 20th among the 45 states and Puerto Rico for which the Associated Press obtained condition assessments.

The dire conditions in Midland County followed earlier evacuation alerts for residents along parts of the Tittabawassee. The duration of the heavy rains in the Midwest also brought flooding to Chicago and other parts of Illinois, as well as Ohio and other states.

Dozens of residents were spending the night at Midland High School, one of several shelters hastily opened for those who evacuated their homes.

The main mood in the school’s gymnasium was one of unsettlement, said residents.

Bruce Leach said he has stayed at three different places in the last five hours.

He was home when he and his wife decided to leave their neighborhood, he said. They went to one shelter, but it was closed because of a lack of electricity. They then moved to Midland High School.

“It’s confusing. You don’t know what going to happen,” said Leach.

He and other residents may not be done moving, he said. With the possibility of more flooding in Midland, they were worried they may have to move to yet another shelter.

“You just hope for the best,” he said.

Meanwhile, the flooding encroached on downtown Midland and such landmarks as the Midland Mall, making driving treacherous at night.

As a precaution, several patients had been transferred from MidMichigan Medical Center in Midland.

Northwood University, a private university based in Midland, announced on its website that it had evacuated the campus amid the flood.

President Kent MacDonald wrote on Twitter early Wednesday that the campus closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

“All students, staff & faculty are safe,” MacDonald tweeted. “Water levels are expected to peak later this morning. We will provide more information throughout the day. Northwood looks forward to being open for business in August.”

The driver of a pickup truck was rescued by first responders after the vehicle was swept away on a flooded road in Tittabawassee Township. In Midland, floodwaters overwhelmed the Midland Area Farmers Market and the bridge along the Tittabawassee.

The water surged in other places along rivers and lakes, forcing residents to use kayaks or boats to survey damage in their neighborhood on Oakridge Road on Wixom Lake in Gladwin County on Tuesday.

In Edenville, south of Gladwin, flooding left outdoor furniture and garbage cans floating like beach toys in the water.

Midland County 911 sent out a series of alerts earlier Tuesday saying the Edenville and Sanford dams were at risk of failing, and those living near Sanford Lake, Wixom Lake and other area waterways should evacuate. By evening, the warning became clear.

Sarah Schulz was with her family at their cabin near Wixom Lake when water rose high enough Tuesday to cover cars and leave the property a virtual island.

Following a harried call through social media, she connected with someone who offered to ferry Schulz, her husband and parents, the couple's two children and a pair of dogs on a pontoon boat. "My family has been on that lake since 1960 and we have never once flooded at all, let alone this kind of catastrophic flood where we had to be evacuated in an emergency fashion," she said. 

Once they reached passable roads, the group drove back to Schulz's house in Midland, where they holed up with her mother-in-law, who had been evacuated from a home nearby. They wondered if another escape loomed before dawn.

"I don’t know that I slept any last night as I knew the water was rising around us," she said. "I don't know if I'll sleep tonight knowing the water is headed toward Midland."

In Gladwin County, Don Pease, who lives about a mile from the Tittabawassee, stayed with his daughter, son-in-law and brother, surrounded by washed out roads. A power outage meant using a power generator.

"I grew up here. I'm 63 years old. I have never seen anything like this," he said of the flooding. "Nobody expected this."

Elsewhere in the county, Bob Slater spent two days warily watching Smallwood Lake in front of his cottage.

The Sterling Heights resident and his family had been at their scenic home away from home, and the slow-moving storm that spurred downpours across Michigan over the weekend weren't concerning until Monday. That's when Slater noticed nearby creeks "running hard and fast," and the water beneath a dock outside swelling.

He and his brother kept an overnight vigil to ensure their boats were tethered as the lake "kept rising and rising," the retiree said. "It just kept creeping and creeping. It was like a slow torture."

Though Slater, his brother and son were nearly 40 miles north, they kept a close eye out for alerts about another dam closer to their cottage.

"If that goes, then we’d have to get out and we’d have to go pretty fast," Slater said.

His wife, Carole, and daughter, Amy, had already left at his behest late Monday to return to Macomb County. 

"We didn’t know if the roads were going to wash out," Carole Slater said. "It was getting bad."

Tittabawassee Fire and Rescue rescued the driver from this red pickup truck on Norh Gleaner Road near its intersection with Tittabawassee Road on Tuesday, May 19, 2020 in Saginaw County, Mich. The truck was swept off of the road by standing water.

By Tuesday, Slater's family only had to contend with a wet basement as the water receded. But long after the rain left the state, the near-record deluges that dumped more than 4 inches of rain in spots was wreaking havoc for many in Metro Detroit and beyond.

"The situation is pretty fluid," Slater said while watching the water from his window. "It’ll be several days at least until this situation calms down."

More:Record highs projected for Lakes Michigan and Huron in summer

This photo shows a view of a dam on Wixom Lake in Edenville, Mich., Tuesday, May 19, 2020. People living along two mid-Michigan lakes and parts of a river have been evacuated following several days of heavy rain that produced flooding and put pressure on dams in the area.

The numbers tell the tale.

The National Weather Service reported eye-popping figures over 48 hours, including 1.51 inches in Southgate, 4.20 inches in Saginaw County, 1.64 in Lake Orion, 2.43 in Flushing in Genesee, 2.06 in Farmington Hills, 4.03 in Freeland in Midland County, 4.30 inches in Chesaning, in Saginaw County, 2.68 inches in Saline and 2.29 inches in Washington Township.

On Monday alone, Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus recorded 1.71 inches, beating the previous record of 1.50 set May 18, 2000, the weather service said. The normal value is 0.11; last year, 0.46 was recorded.

High water overwhelmed docks along the Grosse Ile Trenton Channel. And in Harrison Township, a lighthouse and cannons were submerged as the canal rose above the boardwalk in Anchor Bay Shores subdivision, prompting some residents to fill hundreds of sandbags to keep the water at bay.

The National Weather Service had also issued lakeshore flood warnings for several counties, including Wayne, Macomb and Monroe, as waters pushed by easterly winds threatened low-lying properties.

The threat is diminishing as winds are expected to weaken through the rest of the week, meteorologist Dave Kook said. "Without the wind, you’re not going to have as high waves or water piling up on the eastern shoreline of those counties. You’ll have less of an imminent threat of flooding."

Mark Musselman brings a chair to the front of his house from the backyard, wading through floodwater Tuesday in Edenville.

Scattered showers are forecast to return Friday with temperatures in the 60s. Memorial Day weekend is expected to be dry with high temperatures in the 70s and .

The high water levels and rain come after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Detroit found new record high monthly mean levels on lakes Michigan and Huron, St. Clair and Erie.

Water levels forecast for May 1 were above their levels of one year ago for lakes Michigan, Huron, St. Clair and Erie, while lakes Superior and Ontario are below last year's levels, according to the Army Corps as May began. 

The levels on lakes Michigan and Huron, which are measured as one body of water, and St. Clair and Erie are predicted to be 10, 2, and 3 inches, respectively, above their levels last year.

Residents and property owners across the state have been dealing with high water levels for a few years.

The lake projections signal that Michigan property owners could continue to combat bluff and shoreline erosion, damage to coastal infrastructure and flooding. The rising lake levels represent long-term challenges for a region that has faced swings of the lakes' extreme highs and lows. 

Rising levels are expected through August, according to Corps' projections.

Staff writer Kim Kozlowski and the Associated Press contributed.