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Michigan town takes in flood's devastation: 'I lost it all'

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Sanford — It's a nightmare on Main Street.

Rebecca Johnson, right, hugs her niece, Paige Benjamin, as Johnson cleans out the kitchen of her home in Sanford on Thursday. Sanford was hit especially hard after the Sanford dam failed earlier in the week.

Residents and business owners in this mid-Michigan village with a population of less than 1,000 returned to their homes and shops Thursday for the first time since heavy rains led to breaches of the Edenville and Sanford dams, causing massive flooding throughout Midland County.

They found devastation.

Overturned cars, collapsed buildings, streetlights snapped in two — testaments to the violent power of the floodwaters that raged through town.

"I thought my place might be still standing, but it's gone," said Tim Evans, owner of Fieros Forever Michigan Museum and Car Sales, which was flattened by the floodwaters. "I lost it all."

The water swept some of Evans' 15 cars several hundred yards from his shop. A few were overturned. All were totaled. 

A block away from the town's main thoroughfare, Rebecca Johnson stood in her home surveying the extensive damage. Mud covered the floor. The refrigerator lay on its side, bowled over by the surging water.

"I just moved here a year ago," she said. "I put a lot of work into this house; I just finished the fence a week ago.

"We lost a lot of memories in the water — my kids' stuff that can't be replaced. Material things, I don't care about. The pictures ... we did save a box, so we were happy about that."

Connie "C.J." Methner also was delighted when she discovered a framed picture of her three children had survived the devastation at her shop, C.J.'s Hairstyling, on West Saginaw Road.

Her husband, Kim Methner, emerged from inside the salon Thursday morning, lifting the framed photo like a trophy.

"I found the pictures," he said, grinning.

"Thank God," his wife said.

C.J. Methner said she and her husband stood across the street from the shop Tuesday night, watching the flood destroy it. She said their photos were her main concern.

"The water just kept going up, and I knew it wasn't going to make it," she said of the shop, which she bought in 1986 after working there as a cosmetologist for three years. "The business is gone, but that can be replaced — those are the only baby pictures I have of them.

"My boys made it."

Sanford was among the hardest-hit communities in mid-Michigan, but the flood's destruction could be seen for miles along the Tittabawassee River.

Magma Gems Custom Fine Jewelry in Saginaw, about 30 miles south of Sanford, was destroyed.

"We lost double because we live here, too," said Andrew Forester, who lived in the basement of the shop with his wife, Jennifer, and their 19-year-old daughter Lauren. "Now, we're homeless. I don't know what we're going to do, but I trust God in good times and bad."

The Foresters on Thursday slogged through the ruins of their muddy home and business, which Andrew Forester said he recently renovated at a cost of $25,000 to $30,000.

Rich Cobb, a mechanic, checks out a delivery vehicle used by the Auto Value store in Sanford, Thursday. Most of downtown Sanford was devastated by floodwaters after the Edenville and Sanford dams failed this week.

"After the coronavirus, this is a double whammy," he said. "We haven't been open for two-and-a-half months, and we had hopes to open next Friday. Now I'm not sure what to do."

Andrew Forester said insurance issues are compounding his problems.

"The insurance company isn't coming through for us, even though we had flood insurance," he said, adding that he wants answers about how the Edenville Dam failed.

"Who is responsible for the dam? If nobody has done anything wrong, then that's just life," he said. "But if somebody dropped the ball, people should be paid for their losses, especially if the insurance companies aren't going to pay."

C.J. Methner said she's hoping the Federal Emergency Management Agency will render aid to flood victims, a prospect that was helped Thursday by President Donald Trump's declaration of a federal emergency in Michigan.

"If FEMA doesn't help us, we've lost everything — and say adios to this town, because with everything that's happened, and all the other business owners ... they lost everything," said Methner, her voice cracking.

"But this is just a bump in the road. I'm 63 years old; I've had a lot of bumps. What am I going to do, sit around and cry like a baby? I don't know what we're going to do financially, but we'll figure it out."