Midland, flood evacuees try to manage crisis atop crisis

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Midland — Among the 11,000 residents driven from their homes by flooding were ones who already felt like they were drowning.

People with the coronavirus, which fills the lungs with fluid, were part of the mass exodus.

Midland resident Ritu Patel communicates with family members on her cell phone at a temporary shelter at Midland High School, Wednesday, May 20, 2020 in Midland, Mich. Patel was concerned because her husband had left the shelter to assess the flood damage to their home.

One catastrophe, meet another.

“It’s scary,” said Rose Williams, 78, who sought refuge in the gym of Midland High School. “How much more are we supposed to take?”

Williams doesn’t have COVID-19 but is scared to the dickens of contracting it. She was fine living by herself. But she suddenly was thrust inside an enclosed room with 100 strangers.

She wasn’t the only vulnerable soul pondering such unpleasantries. When the Riverside Place retirement home in Midland was evacuated, some residents stayed with family but another 100 were taken to shelters.

Of the 150 people at the Midland High shelter, 50 slept in their cars because they were worried about the virus, said Brad Kaye, Midland city manager.

“COVID-19 didn’t go away miraculously because we had a flood,” he said.

For Kaye and other officials, it presented a tall order: How do you manage one crisis during the throes of another?

Eight shelters set up by the American Red Cross established protocols to deal with the disease.

At Midland High, people’s temperatures were checked before they entered the building. Masks were de rigueur. Beds were kept six feet apart. Hands were washed at regular intervals. A group of volunteers wiped down surfaces.

“We don’t want anything to spawn here,” said volunteer Paul Schroll of Midland.

Among the volunteers were nurses and doctors.

Fred Yanoski, public health director for Midland County, said he believed local agencies were staying in front of the twin crises.

People with the coronavirus are being turned away from the shelters, he said. Instead, authorities find other places for them. The Red Cross has secured hotels for 65 residents, it said.

“It’s certainly a challenge,” said Yanoski.

The Midland area has one thing in its favor. While the virus rampaged through Detroit, it has largely spared the middle of Michigan.

Midland County has just 76 residents with the disease and didn’t report a single new case on Wednesday.

For someone left homeless during a pandemic, the elderly at Midland High seemed to be making the most of it.

They slept on cots and air mattresses spread across the gymnasium floor.

Dot Costello, who lives at Riverside Place, hadn’t been worried about the flooding. She lives on the third floor of the facility. She was surprised when she was evacuated with all the other residents.

Nor is this her first tango with calamity. She was born during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918.

Costello, 101 years young, worried about what will become of her hometown.

Volunteers assist evacuated residents at a temporary shelter at Midland High School, Wednesday.

“I’m afraid to see what happened,” she said.

Besides her buddies at the retirement home, she also missing something else — her TV.

Williams can relate. She’s a little discombobulated, herself, and not just because of a deluge that comes every 500 years.

She was struggling to find her moorings inside her new domicile at the school.

“It’s OK but it’s not home,” she said. “But the people are very nice.”

The people were a small battalion of volunteers who were trying to make their guests feel as comfortable as possible.

It’s one of the hallmarks of the region, said Kaye, the city manager. The local populace has a big heart, and residents are ready to do whatever they can for others.

In fact, the largesse had filled the coffers of the shelter many times over, said Kaye. Midland High has more food, drinks and supplies than its operators know what to do with.

“One of the brilliant parts of this community is that we’re a generous community,” said Kaye. “When we have challenges, the members of our community step up.”


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