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Tittabawassee crests at 35 feet: 'Never had an event like this'

Midland — Ample sunshine and a wide, placid river conjured vacation-like images Wednesday in this central Michigan town.

But what lay beneath all that water told another story.

It was a tale of damaged homes, uprooted citizenry, a chemical scare, power outages, sewage problems, washed-out roads, a destroyed library.

It was the type of nightmare that comes along once in 500 years.

“We’ve never had an event like this,” said Brad Kaye, Midland’s city manager.

Don Thomas (background) rows Nick Maki and son Jason Thomas past Jason's red 2001 Grand Cherokee, barely visible above the flooding, after picking up Jason's two family cats from his flooded home near W. Signet in Midland.  Jason Thomas, "We walked out last night, me, my wife and three kids."  "Other than the pictures put up high or upstairs, everything else is gone."

Several days of heavy rain caused floodwaters to overtake two dams, flooding several towns near two lakes and the Tittabawassee River.

The Edenville Dam, at the border of Midland and Gladwin counties, failed late Tuesday afternoon and caused water to flow over and around a second dam, the Sanford Dam, downstream in the Tittabawassee River.

The flooding led to the evacuation of residents. There were no reported injuries or fatalities.

The river crested at 35 feet Wednesday afternoon, which is more than 10 feet above flood level, but less than the most dire projection of 38 feet. The previous record was 33.9 feet in 1986, according to the National Weather Service. By late Wednesday, it dipped to 34.1 feet and was expected to continue declining.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer requested support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday night in a letter to President Trump. She also said the state would investigate the operators of the two dams, Edenville and Sanford.

“This was a known problem for a while and that’s why it’s important that we do our due diligence,” she said during a press conference in Midland.

Boyce Hydro’s license to operate the Edenville dam was revoked in 2018 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The commission cited noncompliance issues including spillway capacity and the inability to withstand a major flood.

The commission directed the company to mount an independent investigation to determine the cause of the damage to the dam.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he spoke with Whitmer earlier in the day about the situation in Midland and plans to visit the site "at the appropriate time," according to pool reports.

The flooding also caused concerns at Dow Chemical Co., where the water mixed with containment ponds at the company plant.

The floodwaters also threatened to displace sediment from a downstream Superfund site, which was contaminated with dioxins that were dumped in the last century.

Dow officials said it hasn’t detected the release of any chemicals from the plant. Once the flooding recedes, the company will reassess the Superfund site and state officials will evaluate the plant.

The H Hotel has water up to its doors in downtown Midland, May 20, 2020.

Bridgette Gransden, administrator of Midland County, said Dow Chemical told the county it was trying to determine the impact of floodwaters mixing with the plant’s tertiary pond.

Otherwise, the company said it was able to safely shut down, said Gransden.

Even with the end of the rainfall, the area isn’t out of the woods yet, say local officials.

"We’re looking at probably four to five days, at least, before the water recedes just to get us back down close to normal river levels," Kaye said at a press conference late Wednesday.

The flooding won’t recede for a while so authorities were asking residents not to return to their homes yet. The flooding also submerged some pump stations in the city, leading to sanitary sewer service disruptions to some areas that had been evacuated, he said.

"It will take multiple days for the water to recede, and we have a long ways to go before people should return home," said Mark Bone, chairman of the Midland County Board of Commissioners. "We are also battling COVID ... although this may be challenging, it is important for people at our shelters."

When residents do return to their homes, they will be heartbroken.

Ashman Street near Main Street is underwater in downtown Midland, May 20, 2020.

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 rowboat retrieved them and returned them to the couple.

“They were close to being done,” Eric said. “It’s a blessing.”

More:Feds revoked Edenville Dam license over fears it could not survive major flood

Meanwhile, the mood was almost jaunty in downtown Midland as residents surveyed the swollen river.

Dozens of residents descended on the area on Wednesday morning to gape at flooded streets along the Tittabawassee River.

The riverfront Midland Area Farmers Market and several streets were underwater.

Residents snapped photos as the tops of streetlights and stop signs peeked out from the water’s surface.

“You don’t see that every day,” said Don Weitzel of Midland. “I never saw it rain so much.”

Weitzel’s home wasn’t affected by the widespread flooding but he had a restless 24 hours.

“It got my friend’s home. I thought it was going to get me,” he said.

A car is abandoned on South Saginaw Road at Bailey Bridge Road near the border of Freeland and Midland on Wednesday morning. Flooding along the Tittabawassee River has caused Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a state of emergency

The river was more than 20 feet higher than it was just three days ago, but weather officials say the flooding slowed down significantly during the afternoon.

The American Red Cross is housing residents who evacuated their homes at Bullock Creek High School, Coleman High School, Freeland High School, Hemlock High School, Midland High School, North Midland Family Center, Swan Valley High School and West Midland Family Center.

Other communities being served include Arenac, Gladwin, Iosco, Ogemaw and Saginaw counties, where Red Cross teams are in the field surveying damaged homes and working with local emergency management to assess the impact of the flooding

For 20 years now, John Kinkema has handled the fireworks for the Sanford Lake Association's Fourth of July celebration.

The celebration was already on shaky footing in 2020 because of the coronavirus. Events around Michigan, even into the fall, are already being canceled out of an abundance of caution. Fourth of July is a month and a half away.

"This might kill it," Kinkema said Wednesday after returning to his home to survey the damage. 

"I have a feeling this might be the end of that decision-making. The lake is really down low now; there’s all sorts of debris in it," Kinkema said.

Tony Stamas, president and CEO of the Midland Business Alliance, offered an optimistic report about the condition of downtown Midland early Wednesday afternoon.

The alliance counts about 1,000 businesses in Midland County in its membership. Most of its efforts, in recent months, have been informational and focused on the coronavirus.

Now the alliance will walk "parallel paths," guiding members as they navigate the reopening of the economy and any rebuilding after the flood. 

"If you go to downtown Midland, there’s a spot right by the river, and a hill that leads to Main Street," Stamas said as weather observers and community stakeholders watched water levels closely. 

People walk down the main street, W. Saginaw Street, in downtown Sanford, Michigan which is downriver from the Sanford dam when it broke open.

"It hasn’t reached Main Street," Stamas added. "Hopefully, that won’t occur."

The Mid-Michigan Medical Center, according to a statement from president Greg Rogers, has transferred a few patients "that were identified by their physician," but has "no current plans to evacuate."

A Wednesday update said the medical center "remains staffed and operational," and there were still no plans to evacuate. But due to the emergency, its urgent care, physicians group, family practice center, rehab sites and home care and home medical equipment interests would all be closed, at least for the day.

"The practices will be converting to virtual visits as much as possible," the medical center said in a statement. 

After the 1986 flood, the hospital system installed a "FEMA-approved flood wall," and its generators are above the flood plain "to reduce risk of damage to the medical center," Rogers’ statement said.

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed