Whitmer seeks FEMA aid for Midland's widespread flooding

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a press conference in Midland on May 20, 2020. She declared a state of emergency for Midland County after the Edenville and Sanford dams breached.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer formally asked the president Wednesday to send additional aid to help in the state's response to catastrophic flooding in Midland County, requesting in a letter that President Donald Trump declare an emergency there on an expedited basis.

The state has requested help with mobile bridges to get equipment to flooded areas, debris removal, National Guard emergency responders and assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"Despite our efforts, local and state resources have been insufficient to respond to the situation," Whitmer said in a statement. "The availability of equipment and personnel is further limited due to the ongoing effects and response requirements of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.”

Flooding in the Midland region is "devastating," with experts describing the damage as a 500-year event, Whitmer said Wednesday during a press briefing at Midland High School.

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

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.

"They have a big problem with the dams breaking," Trump said. "So that is a big, big problem. And so we've sent the FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers out, and they're very good at dams, they're probably better at that than anybody you can think of, right? The Army Corps of Engineers have done a fantastic job."

A 6-8 inches of rainfall over 48 hours starting Saturday prompted Gladwin and Midland counties to declare local states of emergency Monday, and Saginaw and Arenac counties on Tuesday. 

When the Edenville and Sanford dams were breached, Whitmer declared a state of emergency for Midland County.

The governor Wednesday urged residents who hadn't already evacuated to get to safety immediately. So far, roughly 10,000 people have evacuated from the area. 

"This is going to be hard, but we are anticipating several feet of water across this area," Whitmer said. "... It is a tough time to be sure, but we are going to get through this."

Whitmer said the state is reviewing "every potential legal recourse we have" to determine responsibility for the failed dams and resulting flooding. 

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer surveys the flooding in Midland County from a helicopter Wednesday.

Records show the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked Boyce Hydro's power generation license in 2018 for longstanding issues.

"This incredible damage requires that we hold people responsible," Whitmer said. "...This was a known problem for a while and that's why it's important that we do our due diligence and take action."

The company, of which Lee Mueller is a co-member manager and employee, sent out a statement Wednesday afternoon, noting the owners and managers were "deeply distressed by recent events."

"They have remained in ongoing contact with their dedicated personnel and apprised of the situation," said Lawrence Kogan, a lawyer for Mueller. "Their primary concern all along has been the safety and welfare of the many residents of the Gladwin and Midland County communities."

While the Edenville Dam had clearly failed, Midland City Manager Brad Kaye said the Sanford Dam is overflowing, but "it's not entirely clear what the structure" is like underneath.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer visits an emergency shelter for flood evacuees at Midland High School Wednesday.

"We don't know quite frankly whether the entire structure is gone or just parts of it is gone," Kaye said.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said he expects Whitmer might seek a federal disaster declaration in response to the flooding for federal aid, noting that would involve a survey and damage assessment on the ground.

“I think it’s pretty clear from the images I’ve seen and from what I’ve heard from folks on the ground, it’s a safe bet that it will qualify the federal assistance,” said Peters, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that oversees FEMA.

“The president will have to sign off on that assistance and once that happens there will be money available for homeowners and also for public structures.”

Melissa Nann Burke contributed.