Midland's flooded Northwood University vows to rebuild

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Midland — Ami Scott was in her dorm room at Northwood University when she heard someone knocking on her door at 3 a.m. Tuesday.

Outside, an official from the private business school in Midland summoned her to a meeting to discuss immediate evacuation because a nearby dam was at risk of failing and could lead to massive flooding.

Kent MacDonald, president of Northwood University, poses for a photo on campus, in Midland, May 21, 2020.  The university was flooded after two area dams failed this week.

Scott, along with 25 other students still living on campus, relocated to a hotel before two dams failed later Tuesday and the Tittabawassee River swelled to catastrophic levels, putting Northwood University under water.

"It’s heartbreaking," said Scott, a Detroit resident. "It is just overwhelming at this point."

As homeowners and businesses survey the damage caused by the 500-year flood in central Michigan, officials at Northwood say the small university, which embraces values of free enterprise and personal responsibility, could be the community institution that suffered the most damage.

President Kent MacDonald, who toured the campus on Thursday in the flood waters aboard a flat-bottom boat, said about a mile stretch of the 500-acre campus abuts the Tittabawassee River, and half of the campus is now under water.

The flooding has damaged eight buildings, including athletic facilities at the Hach Student Life Center, Bennett Center and DeVos Field House.

The campus’ physical plant building is submerged and likely will have to be torn down, MacDonald said.

Among the other damaged buildings, with water levels ranging from two to eight feet: Miner Hall, a girls dormitory with business offices on the lower level; Strosacker Library, which includes some classrooms; Jordan Hall, which houses classrooms and the university’s Esports Center; and Griswold Communications Center, which houses classrooms, a lecture hall and IT offices.

Kent MacDonald, president of Northwood University, looks at some of the flooding near campus, in Midland, May 21, 2020.

Those buildings will have to be refurbished with drywall, plumbing, electric and more.

"This is so deep here, it's unbelievable," said MacDonald, as the boat zipped him along the south end of the flooded campus.

But as MacDonald floated in the floodwaters, he expressed confidence in the future of "America’s Free Enterprise University," which takes no government money and since 1959 has graduated 60,000 students, a third of whom are entrepreneurs.  

"We'll get through it," said MacDonald. "They have less than 100 days to get the work done before classes start in fall."

Analysts will be in next week to assess the flood damage and begin rebuilding at the university, which enrolls 1,200 students and operates with a $47.5 million budget. Tuition, room and board cost $40,880 annually but school officials say scholarships cut the average net cost down to $20,000.

The Richard DeVos Graduate School of Management on the campus of Northwood University, in Midland, May 21, 2020.

Meanwhile, students have set up a volunteer group to help the community.

Already, 38 supporters of Northwood University have donated $50,000 to help, before the school even asked its community to help. 

"They knew in the last flood we needed help," said MacDonald.

Northwood has grappled with flooding two other times, in 1986 and 2017. But this is the first time that dams failed: The Edenville Dam, about 21 miles upstream from Midland, failed Tuesday afternoon. causing water to flow over and around the Sanford Dam in the Tittabawassee River.

Northwood officials got an alert at 5 p.m. Tuesday, letting them know they had four hours to prepare the campus and evacuate.

The university has a Core Crisis Team of more than 20 members who had been planning for a tragedy. Upon notification of the looming flood, the team activated. Many began working to  bring up as many critical documents in buildings onto higher floors.

By 8 p.m., Northwood had shut down the campus.

"If we would have been there much longer, we might still be there," said Dave Marsh, the university's athletic director.

MacDonald added that "everyone knew what to do, flawlessly."

Jennifer Panning, chair of the school's governing board and a Northwood alumna, said it's unfortunate that Northwood had to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and a 500-year flood too.

But the campus community is looking forward to having students return in late August.

"We have a lot of work to do, but we are willing and eager to welcome students back," said Panning, owner of Artisan Tile, a a tile and terrazzo contracting company in Brighton. "The flooding is catastrophic. Much of our campus is under water. But we will rebuild."