Stunned evacuees face 'unthinkable' flood damage
Hope Township — There's pain in Hope.
The mid-Michigan township of about 1,300 residents was among the communities still reeling Wednesday, a day after after heavy rains led to failures of the Edenville and Sanford dams, causing massive flooding throughout Midland County.
The Tittabawassee River breached the two dams, which drained Wixom Lake, leaving behind a bizarre, barren landscape — a muddy lake bottom dotted by gnarled docks and beached boats.
"It's a disaster," said Dave Cryderman, owner of the Hook Party Store and Bait Shop across the street from the lake. Early Wednesday, the shop was 18 inches underwater but later in the day, the water had drained, along with the lake.
"It's just unthinkable," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to do. We were already hurting because of the coronavirus, and now this. The only thing that would make it worse is if a tornado hit us."
About 20 miles south, residents in and around Midland were evacuated Tuesday night. Among them was Kathy Parrent, who sheltered at Midland High School.
Parrent sat amid rows of cots in the school's basement gymnasium Wednesday, watching relatives play the board game Battleship — a feeble diversion as they waited to find out whether they'll have a home to return to after the historic flooding recedes.
"My house might not even be there by the time this is over, or it might be seriously damaged," she said. "I really don't know what's going on, but I'm hearing it doesn't look good."
Parrent was one of about 80 people who huddled at Midland High School waiting to return to their homes.
Flash flood emergencies were put into effect for all of the communities along the Tittabawassee River, and evacuations were ordered.
Residents like Letha Havens of Midland, who was among those at the high school, said they had to pack in a hurry Tuesday night.
"We didn't get a whole lot of notice," said Havens. "I got an alert on my phone about 7:30-8 (p.m.) that said, 'evacuate now.' So I just grabbed a change of clothes and came down here."
Parrent said she also had scant time to evacuate. "I got about 20 minutes' notice," she said. "I just grabbed some changes of clothes and left."
Like Parrent, Havens said she doesn't know how badly the flood has damaged her home.
"I know for sure the basement's flooded, and maybe the living room, too," she said. "But I don't know how bad it is. I'm trying to find a police officer or someone who can tell me what it's like in my area, because nobody knows."
During the flooding, Eric and Christine Johnson of Midland began moving things out of their basement to keep them dry.
And then the dams broke, and all bets were off.
The water in their single-story home quickly grew to three feet, chasing them to a Holiday Inn.
Eric’s guitars were floating in the house. Christine said she lost anything of importance.
“Everything is lost: historical stuff, family stuff, my kitchen,” she said.
They even thought they had lost their two cats, a tabby and Calico named Roxie and Bella. But a Good Samaritan in a row boat retrieved the kitties and returned them to the couple.
“They were close to being done,” said Eric. “It’s a blessing.”
Midland High School was one of several shelters in the county that opened to house the evacuees. Dozens of volunteers bustled in and out of the school Wednesday, toting food, water and other supplies to people forced to flee their homes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Last night was pretty rough," said Terry Hanley, one of the members of the Great Lakes Veterans Association to volunteer at the high school. "People are going through a lot; we had one elderly man who laid in his garage for three hours before someone finally found him.
"It's been rough enough for the last few months, and you wonder what's next," Hanley said. "But Midland has stepped up. This is our community, and people really came together to volunteer."
Dot Costello was among those sheltering at Midland High School who wondered what else could possibly go wrong.
"First the coronavirus, now a flood — what's next? Where are the locusts?" said Costello, 101, who was born Oct. 3, 1918, during the height of the Spanish Flu pandemic that killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million people worldwide, and some 675,000 Americans.
"This is not the way I wanted to live my senior years," said Costello. "What's so bad about this is that it's unknown, and nobody knows what's coming next. I'm talking about the virus and the flood."
Because Costello lives on the third floor of the Riverside Place Senior Living Community in Midland, a few hundred yards from the Tittabawassee River, she didn't think she'd have to leave.
"I figured since I live on the third floor, I thought I was safe," she said. "But they told us we had to evacuate."
Pat Wood, 87, who also lives in Riverside, said her children were pressing her to leave the high school for different accommodations.
"My daughter is in Ecuador, and my son's in Germany; they told me to go to a hotel but I don't know; the service is pretty good here," she said. "They have Starbucks coffee — and everyone likes Starbucks."
In addition to stacks of water bottles and other food, tables set up in the school's basement were filled with donated books, including several Bibles and coloring books, puzzles and board games.
Evacuees said the food and other donated items helped, although they were still in a tough spot.
"This is hard to cope with," said Costello, who has five children and eight grandchildren. "I just got used to dealing with the virus, and now this."
Parrent said she's doing her best to keep up her spirits. Two books were on the table in front of her: A book of word puzzles and the Bible.
"I know it doesn't look good right now, but I have faith," Parrent said. "All I can do right now is hope for the best."
Cryderman said he's also trying to stay optimistic that his lakefront bait shop, which relies on tourism from boaters, will stay afloat.
"I have six boat slips that won't be getting rented out anytime soon," he said. "I have an outdoor tavern; I'm hoping that will keep me going."
While Cryderman expressed concern about his business's future, the mood was different a few hundred yards away, where two families cavorted in the mud pit that a day earlier had been a lake that reached depths of 40 feet.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Nina Jillaine of Rhodes, about seven miles west of Hope Township. "I thought the grandkids should see this."
Jillaine's grandchildren played with Chelsea Winburg's kids. "I've never seen an empty lake before," the Midland resident said.
The children embarked on a lake-bed treasure hunt.
"I found a jawbone," Jillaine's 10-year-old granddaughter said.
Other items found in the mud included an empty can of Carling's Black Label beer featuring a pull tab — the kind of opener phased out about 40 years ago — and a grimy pair of men's underwear, which prompted the kids to squeal, "ewwwww."
Walt Lepczyk of Hope Township also felt luckier than some of his neighbors. The floodwater rose to within a few yards from his house on Wixom Lake, but did no damage. Still, he said it was nerve-wracking watching the water rise.
"It was going up 5 inches an hour before (the dam) broke; I was measuring it," he said. "I stood on the dock, and the water was up to my neck.
"When the lake started draining, it was going down 5 inches every 5-10 minutes," Lepczyk said. "It was crazy; there were chairs and coolers floating past. It took about two hours for the lake to completely drain."
A few miles north, where the Tittabawassee River flows into Wixom Lake, Atasha Johnson was trying to clean up after her basement was flooded with 3 feet of water. By Wednesday afternoon, the water had drained, leaving behind a film of mud.
"We were just going to put this house up for sale; how do you sell a house on this lakefront?" she said, contemplating the muddy pit beyond her backyard.
"Any time you put a house near a river that dams up, you know you could have this happen," Johnson said. "But I'm luckier than some people were."