Dozens of freeway pump outages help fuel flooding in Metro Detroit

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Dozens of the state's highway pump stations in Metro Detroit had mechanical issues or were without power Saturday, contributing to flooding on the region's freeways and in nearby neighborhoods after Friday downpours of rain.

Parts of Interstate 75 and Interstate 94 were either closed Saturday or had cars diverting around lanes flooded with water. There was also flooding on the Davison Freeway east of the Lodge Freeway that was causing traffic to slow and change lanes mid-day Saturday.

In all, at least 28 of Metro Detroit's freeway pump stations didn't have power or had mechanical problems Saturday afternoon, according to a Michigan Department of Transportation map provided to The Detroit News. Seven pump stations had communication issues, meaning they could be shut down or working, according to the map.

Power outages and pump houses getting "overloaded with too much water in a short amount of time" are the main reasons the pump stations couldn't get water off of the roads, Michigan Department of Transportation spokeswoman Diane Cross said in a Saturday email.

The Detroit area accounts for 140 of the state's 166 pump stations, according to state transportation department statistics. 

A sign signals high flood water levels on Hanover Street at Telegraph Road in Dearborn Heights on Saturday, June 26, 2021. There were mechanical issues or power outages with the state's pumping stations under Metro Detroit's freeways and state roads, including in Dearborn Heights.

"Some of the flooding is due to debris being washed down into the freeway," Cross said, adding that it often occurs in the "lowest location where water and debris accumulates."

This weekend's flooding is reminiscent of Aug. 11, 2014, when 4.5 inches of rain fell on the region in a four-hour time span, resulting in flooding and closures on many of the region's freeways, including Interstates 75, 696, 94 and the Southfield and Lodge freeways.

Besides the historic rain — the second highest downpour recorded in the past century — the 2014 flooding was blamed on failures in the state's intricate system of pump stations hidden below the freeways, which are supposed to keep water off the roads and traffic moving.

On Saturday, the freeway pump failures ranged from Taylor, Dearborn Heights, Melvindale and Dearborn to the west through parts of Detroit and Highland Park and into the Grosse Pointes. At least 18 stations in Detroit had mechanical issues or power outages, accounting for the vast majority of failures in the region.

There were three failed pumps from Grosse Pointe Park to Grosse Pointe Woods, while the rest were in the Dearborn-Melvindale-Taylor area.

"The system is overwhelmed," MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson said in an email. "This is a deluge, the type of extreme weather event we are experiencing with more frequency." 

Michigan's subpar pumper stations have been a continuing problem. About half of Michigan's 166 pumping stations were in poor condition, according to a state analysis that The Detroit News reported in 2019, down from 58% in 2016. The latest statistics weren't immediately available. 

MDOT is trying to reach a goal of getting 90% of the stations to "good" condition by 2035, but agency representatives have said it depends on how much funding it gets from lawmakers.

The vast majority of Michigan's pump stations are based in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties due to the below-ground nature of the local freeway system. The roads were designed to be below-ground to separate speedy traffic from neighborhoods and to reduce noise pollution, experts said.

Below-ground freeways were considered an innovation at one point, said Bruce Seely, a professor emeritus of history and technology at Michigan Technological University and a historian of the Interstate Highway System.

The Davison Freeway was America's first depressed freeway when it opened in November 1942.

But, Seely told The Detroit News, "once you put a freeway below grade, you’ve got to move the water out. Any summer thunderstorm, you ran the risk of flooding."