Whitmer blames flooding on 'decades of underinvestment,' pushes infrastructure plan

Detroit — The process is underway to determine if Michigan qualifies for federal assistance following historic flooding, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Monday.

Whitmer made multiple stops Monday in the hard-hit city two days after she issued an emergency declaration for Wayne County and submitted a request for a presidential declaration of disaster. The review will require the Federal Emergency Management Authority to evaluate whether disaster conditions exist and the decision will rest with President Joe Biden.

The governor said the circumstances in Detroit and other surrounding communities result from "decades of underinvestment in our infrastructure" and "we're not alone."

"What we need is a comprehensive investment in infrastructure at the state level and at the federal level," Whitmer said during an afternoon news conference at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters alongside Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit water department head Gary Brown. "I'm glad that President Biden is working to get an infrastructure package done because this is not unique to Michigan, but it is our job to deliver for the people in the state. We're doing what we can with the resources we have."

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speaks in front of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a press conference at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters in Detroit on June 28, 2021.

If a major disaster is declared, Whitmer said, FEMA funds will be released and can be used to help offset losses.

Detroit received more than 6 inches of rainfall on Saturday within about five hours. 

That tops totals in August 2014, when a record of 4.57 inches of rainfall fell on Detroit, prompting President Barack Obama to declare a disaster for the city. But, Duggan warned Monday that even if aid is granted, it won't be quick. In 2014, it took about five weeks after the flooding to get the federal aid, he said. 

Detroit received 2,800 calls between Saturday and Sunday to report widespread flooding. 

"We got more than two months of rain in just one day," Duggan said. "The water couldn't even get down the storm drains ... the system was completely overwhelmed."

Brown said Monday that the flood was not due to a lack of maintenance, but "a global warming issue that caused the capacity issue that has to be fixed."

The city has more than 3,000 miles of sewer lines and 2,700 miles of water lines that were built a century ago, he said. Over the years, the city has added $1.5 billion in retention basins and other safeguards along area rivers to prevent flooding. About nine retention basins can store 170 million gallons of stormwater but "more is needed."

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is beginning construction on a 95 million gallon storm system in Rouge Park. The Great Lakes Water Authority will invest $750 million in the water system improvements over the next five years and the Michigan Department of Transportation is working with the city on a plan for freeway and stormwater diversion.

"There is not a community in America that sizes their stormwater system to be able to handle as much rain in one day as you'd have in two months," added Duggan. "Nobody would build a system that big. So, we're going to have to find cost-effective ways to expand to a reasonable point."

Whitmer on Monday touted her MI Clean Water Plan, which calls for a $238 million investment in stormwater upgrades to help tackle challenges and "In my executive budget, I recommended $40 million for climate-resilient infrastructure," she added.

"We must focus on climate change mitigation and build resilient infrastructure so we don't see something like this happen again," said Whitmer, urging Congress to continue working on their infrastructure package.

Detroit is setting up a volunteer group to aid residents unable to move debris from basements and has about 15 city crews conducting bulk pickup in flood-affected areas.

In 2014, about 20% of Detroit homeowners had insurance, Duggan said and urged residents to file claims immediately and to retain pictures of damage and any receipts for when the financial help is available. 

"The reimbursement will come later if we get the presidential support, but you should not wait for the cleaning," he said. "Nothing good happens by letting those contaminants remain in your basement."

Earlier Monday, Whitmer took an aerial tour of the flooded Interstate 94 area in the southwest part of the city and plans on keeping it closed with more unpredictable weather coming.

The governor spoke to reporters on the highway several feet away from the collected water that swallowed several cars on both lanes just west of Livernois at Martin Road.

“The ground is saturated, so moving this water to other ground isn’t going to fix the problem because the water table is so high,” she said. “And if you are watching the forecasts like I am you know that there is likely more water in our future.”

Whitmer blamed double the amount of rain normally felt in June that fell in a few hours, climate change and poor infrastructure, problems she said that the Biden administration is trying to address.

“All of these things are converging here,” the governor said. 

The governor said she’s been trying to “get that conversation going” with the state legislature but that hasn’t happened.

“I’d love it if our local legislature would work with me on a long-term state infrastructure plan as well,” she said.

Large amounts of rainfall within 12 hours overwhelmed sewers in Detroit, freeway pump stations and basements around Metro Detroit. Community leaders cite the storm as a result of climate change and fear the increased likelihood of more intense rainfalls that sewers and freeway pump stations aren't prepared to handle.

The weekend's devastation shows the need for the infrastructure funds being discussed at the state and federal levels, especially with rain expected to continue through Thursday, experts said.

Cars are floating on Interstate 94 at 30th Street in Detroit on Saturday, June 26, 2021, after heavy rain hit Metro Detroit.

The storm system that swept over Michigan this past weekend created flood hazards and at least five tornadoes in the state. The strongest was an EF-2 tornado that hit Port Austin on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service. Elsewhere, the weather service sent survey teams to confirm EF-1 and EF-0 tornadoes swept through Ionia County, an EF-1 touched down in Mecosta County and an EF-0 in Clare County. It's also working with Eaton County’s emergency management agency following reports of a tornado there.

As a result of the system, parts of Metro Detroit received as much as 7 inches of rain in 12 hours between Friday night and Saturday. Whitmer on Saturday declared a state of emergency in Wayne County, the first step toward obtaining assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a process that could take weeks and requires an emergency declaration from the president.

At least 28 of Metro Detroit's 140 freeway pump stations didn't have power or had mechanical problems Saturday afternoon, resulting in closed freeways. Michigan State Police urged drivers and residents to not enter floodwaters, especially after some were seen swimming with pool toys. The water has debris, sharp metal, submerged cars, gasoline, oil and possibly sewage floating in it.

All freeways except for Interstate 94 between Rotunda Drive in Dearborn and Interstate 75 in east Detroit had reopened by Sunday. 

The weather forecast doesn't appear to give southeast Michigan much of a break. Scattered thunderstorms are in the forecast for the rest of the week, but the worst is expected to be in the past.

"We do have potential through the seven-day forecast," said Megan Varcie, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in White Lake Township. "It’s not looking as heavy and widespread."

Detroit is triaging areas most affected by the flooding, such as the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, and has hired contractors to assist with the clean-up efforts.

Wayne County officials have asked municipalities to submit a preliminary damage cost analysis. The State Emergency Operations Center also will assist in those assessments as waters recede. The center also is filling resource requests from Wayne County and the city of Detroit to provide flood clean-up kits with sanitizers, trash bags and other tools to help residents clean their homes.

There are 166 pump stations in Michigan, and 140 are in Metro Detroit. In 2016, 58% were in poor condition, according to MDOT. In 2018, 50% were in “poor” condition.

It's not clear how much funding is needed for the department to reach its goal of 90% of the pumping stations being in good condition. MDOT spent $13 million combined on flood mitigation on freeways in 2019 and 2020 combined — unchanged from the $13 million spent combined in 2017 and 2018.

MDOT spent $2.8 million on pump house maintenance in 2018 and the amount for 2020 was “approximately the same,” MDOT's Cross said.