Wayne County communities cope with flood fallout as state seeks emergency aid

Detroit — Sherry Wheeler's furnace is six months old and ruined, and the company that sold it to her says the warranty doesn't cover a flood that basically turned her East English Village basement into an outhouse.

The washer and dryer? Also ruined. Stove and refrigerator? Same. Grandkids' toys? Yuck.

"I did find some family photos and the kids' birth certificates," Wheeler said Monday, and when she laid them in the sun, "they dried right up."

"Of course," she added, "they stink."

Sherry Wheeler looks at an old school picture of herself as she and her cousin, James Brown, clean up the basement of her home on Detroit's east side after weekend flooding.

Communities across Metro Detroit, and especially in Wayne County, were assessing damages from the weekend's flooding. Wayne County communities are trying to beat a July 6 deadline to turn over preliminary estimates to the county government.

Bottom line, it's an odious situation.

Some sections of Metro Detroit received as much as 7 inches of rain over a 12-hour period between Friday night and Saturday, prompting piles of sodden rubble at curbsides and an emergency declaration from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that'll be in place until July 24.

Whitmer is seeking a presidential declaration of disaster, which requires a review by the Federal Emergency Management Authority to evaluate whether disaster conditions exist, and the decision will rest with President Joe Biden.

The weekend storm system that swept through the state created flood hazards and at least five tornadoes, the strongest of them an EF-2 that hit Port Austin Saturday, according to the National Weather Service. 

On Harvard Road, at least Wheeler's walls were intact, as was she. With her pink sneakers planted on red and beige floor tiles bound for a landfill, she declared, "I'm still standing."

The clean-up is the latest in a series of widespread flooding catastrophes for Detroit. 

James Brown moves a dishwasher from the basement of his cousin Sherry Wheeler's east side Detroit home Monday June 28, 2021, after heavy rains caused flooding in her basement over the weekend.

In 2016, July and August rains caused backups mainly in the city's District 4, the same area bordering Grosse Pointe and the Detroit River. Similar incidents hit the area in 2011 and 2014. 

This spring, Detroit completed an $8.6 million infrastructure overhaul in a neighborhood on the northwest side to reduce basement backups and flooding there. The project fulfilled a commitment Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan had made to residents after the 2014 rainstorms. 

Duggan said during a Monday news conference that the damage hit all across the city and Detroit has "never seen anything like it." Whitmer, he added, is confident that the president "won't forget us."

"The pipes were full," Duggan said. "The system was completely overwhelmed."

'I need help'

Wheeler's neighbors — and neighboring cities — suffered varying levels of damage. 

A few blocks away in Grosse Pointe Park, Al Minetola said Saturday was both a low point and a literal high-water mark for his 35 years in his home, which had never previously flooded. As with Wheeler's street, his was almost end to end with berms of damaged goods.

He was standing next to a pile that included family history both treasured and trivial: furniture from his parents, a wooden pop crate from Towne Club. 

Al Minetola is reflected in a mirror as he speaks Monday June 28, 2021, about weekend flood damage to his Grosse Pointe Park home.

Someone had already snatched the motorized balsa airplane kit he hadn't quite gotten around to building. The Bose speakers meant for his garage were in the stack next to a draft beer dispenser that had never been plugged in.

Searching for the humor in the situation, Minetola noted that "you wonder why you save some of this stuff."

"Then," he said, "the decision gets made for you."

Elsewhere, Highland Park decided to declare its own state of emergency and relocate part of its police department.

Mayor Hubert Yopp said Monday that "severe" flooding in the basement of Highland Park City Hall on Woodward Avenue forced the criminal investigations section to move to a different city-owned building.

"We couldn't wait for FEMA," Yopp said. "We rented U-Haul trucks and moved it this weekend." 

"I need help from the feds and the state," the mayor said, but he maintained that police response would be unaffected: "911 calls will be answered immediately."

Water runs from a stack of floor tiles Monday as James Brown helps his cousin, Sherry Wheeler, clean up the basement of her home on Detroit's east side after weekend flooding.

Dearborn Heights is struggling as well, said Mayor Bill Bazzi, noting about 200 flood claims have been filed, and he estimates that's only 20% of what will come.

Among the homes with flooded basements was his own.

Just last month Bazzi sent letters to homeowners in the city's two floodplains.

As explained in a 2011 city newsletter titled "Flooding: It can happen to anyone," the two floodplains are off Ecorse Creek on the south side of town, and Hines Drive on the north side. 

Bazzi's May 13 letter offered a word of advice: "Don’t wait for the next flood to buy insurance protection. In most cases, there is a 30-day waiting period before National Flood Insurance Program coverage takes effect."

Bazzi argued that the ultimate solution must be federal. He met with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, Monday to talk about the city's needs. 

"She's been very helpful," Bazzi said of Tlaib. "She says, 'Tell me what you want me to do.'"

Bazzi encouraged Dearborn Heights residents to notify the city of their damages via an online flood survey.

Some areas 'did well'

Wayne County's third-largest city, Livonia, went relatively untouched, officials there said. 

"We did well," said Dave Varga, a spokesman for Livonia, which had "about 10" homes with flood damage. Another four to five homes had sewage backups due to a clogged sewer line.

"Every one of those people is somebody who's not happy right now," Varga noted. "They're never going to forget this rain event."

Varga said the city spends about $2 million annually on flood mitigation and credits that with some of its success in avoiding the worst of the damage. 

In other parts of Metro Detroit, the impacts weren't nearly as severe. 

St. Clair Shores Mayor Kip Walby said his city fared considerably better than the Grosse Pointes and Detroit’s east side.

He said there have been far fewer damage claims in the Macomb County city than in 2014, when a flood that also pummeled parts of Oakland County prompted St. Clair Shores to invest millions of dollars in drain replacements and maintenance.

Like this weekend's storm, the 2014 event was called a “once in 100-year” storm, he said, but “those are coming much more frequently.”

The Oakland County Emergency Operation Center has not received any reports of major damage or impact from the storms, county spokesman Bill Mullan said Monday.

On pavement, as opposed to foundations, Michigan State Police spokesman Dale George said the department cleared 118 vehicles, 13 of them submerged. 

Lt. Mike Shaw, a spokesman and commander for the state police in Metro Detroit, couldn't pinpoint an exact number for how many motorists troopers pulled from flooded freeways.

"Troopers helped and moved on," Shaw said.

About 25 troopers helped out with traffic management, and Michigan Department of Transportation crews removed debris from sewers.

George said the state's private sector liaison is working with companies that will donate clean-up kits and other flood-related goods. That list includes Kroger, Meijer and Home Depot, he said.

For homeowners, insurance coverage for damages will depend on the type of coverage they have and the source of the water, Will Lemanski, president of the Michigan Association of Independent Agents and an insurance agent in East Lansing, has told The News.

More:Communities brace for more after rain overwhelms SE Mich. water system

If the flooding came from groundwater, that would fall under flood insurance, which typically homeowners only have if they live in a high-risk flood zone. Flooding from backup, sewage, or a failed sump pump typically is an add-on to home insurance.

"If you have a home policy and didn’t add it, that’s going to be a problem," Lemanski said. "It's always a good thing to review what you got."

The east side was dotted with work trucks early Monday afternoon — some dispatched by insurers, said Brett Boles, some called by homeowners themselves, and some simply flagged down as they drove past.

Boles, who works in water damage restoration for ISC Services of Troy, was sitting on the liftgate of a company cube van, wiping sweat from his face with a towel.

"Just this house, there was four feet of standing water," he said. "The washing machine was just floating."

Boles was parked along Bishop Road in Grosse Pointe Park.

"This street isn't so bad," he said — fewer piles, fewer flies, less aroma. But it was only his third stop of the day, and the phone at the office was still ringing.

jdickson@detroitnews.com