Whitmer requests Biden declare major disaster for Michigan after flooding

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is seeking a major disaster declaration for Michigan that, if granted, would make available federal aid following heavy rain and severe flooding in southeast Michigan in late June.

Whitmer wrote Tuesday to President Joe Biden, seeking the declaration for damage from widespread flooding that closed freeways, knocked out power to thousands of residents and soaked basements, causing major damage and sewer backups in the counties of Wayne and Washtenaw. 

"I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective recovery is beyond the capabilities of the State of Michigan and the affected local governments, and that supplemental federal relief assistance is necessary," Whitmer wrote in the Tuesday letter to Biden.

If federal aid is granted, assistance could include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help people and businesses recover from the flooding damage, Whitmer's office said.

A truck is hoisted from Interstate 75 and Canfield Street as heavy rain flooded streets in Metro Detroit on Saturday, June 26, 2021.

Some parts of the region recorded as much as 7 inches of rain over a 12-hour period between the night of June 25 and the morning of June 26, prompting a state emergency declaration from Whitmer that will be in place until July 24.

“We are working as quickly as possible to speed up the timeline for this request that Michigan families need so desperately to recover from these historic floods,” Whitmer said in a Tuesday statement.

“The flooding on June 25-26 had devastating impacts on Wayne and Washtenaw counties residents who suffered damage to their homes and loss of personal property. If granted a presidential declaration, additional federal sources will become available to assist Michigan residents as they continue to recover from this disaster.”

Two deaths are tied to the aftermath of the storm — an 87-year-old man who died after falling in his flooded basement and a 40-year-old utility worker who died June 29 in Detroit while responding to power outages.

Federal and local officials assessed the damage July 8 to 10 at the most severely affected homes and businesses across Wayne County. State officials reviewed the assessments and determined the level of damage met the level to apply for federal aid.

Those assessments found 194 homes with major damage, 1,632 homes with minor damage and 155 affected homes.

At least 1,946 households were found potentially eligible for temporary housing funding, 1,796 households eligible for housing repair assistance, as well as two households for housing replacement assistance and 1,941 households for an estimated $14.1 million in housing and “other needs assistance." Wayne was harder hit than Washtenaw.

“It is noteworthy that the damages identified for Wayne County alone almost exceeded the damages identified for the three-county flood disaster area of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne that received the major disaster declaration (by FEMA) in 2014,” Whitmer noted in a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

FEMA will review Whitmer’s request and advise Biden whether he should grant the disaster declaration and provide the individual federal aid. She intends to submit a separate request to activate federal public assistance programs at a later date.

Damage caused by the flooding included destroyed mechanical and electrical systems and personal items within homes, as well as personal vehicles, the governor said.

"Without significant assistance from the federal government, residents will suffer financial hardships for years as they attempt to repair and restore their damaged homes to pre-disaster condition, repair or replace mechanical and electrical systems, take measures to ensure their homes are free of mold and other health hazards, and replace personal belongings," Whitmer wrote in a letter to FEMA. 

She noted that many Wayne County residents are still recovering from the impacts of  flooding in 2014 flooding that resulted in a major disaster declaration, as well as widespread flooding in July 2016 and in May 2019, when Whitmer also declared a state of emergency for the county. In that case, federal aid was not granted.

Whitmer indicated in the letter that she might make a separate request to include the counties of Huron and Ionia in the disaster later after assessments are completed for those areas.

That damage relates to six tornadoes that formed across southern lower Michigan on June 26, with the most damaging ones in the counties of Huron and Ionia, according to Whitmer's letter.

Two tornadoes hit Ionia County — one east of the village of Freeport that was on the ground for about a mile and the second north of Lake Odessa, with winds up to 90 miles an hour that ran along the ground for 4.5 miles. The strongest tornado was in Huron County in Port Austin, with maximum winds up to 120 mph and a width of 400 yards.

Whitmer's letter describes several homes declared uninhabitable due to the flooding, while other homeowners have had to haul water and debris from their homes. Many roads flooded, requiring water rescues and later abandoned vehicles that had to later be towed from the right-of-way. 

The governor previously declared a state of emergency for Wayne County, as well as Huron, Ionia and Washtenaw counties.

Whitmer noted that many of the communities affected by the severe storms were "already under stress due to mitigation measures in place for the past year to limit the spread of the virus," stressing the financial impacts of the pandemic, as people lost jobs or businesses, and residents also were emotionally traumatized by the deaths or illnesses of loved ones. 

"Many volunteer organizations have been responding to needs related to COVID-19 for over a year now, so their level of readiness to assist with this disaster was reduced," Whitmer wrote.

"Many individual volunteers are members of groups with higher risk for severe illness due to COVID-19, which further reduces the availability of volunteers."

Whitmer recounted the story of a resident whose living space was destroyed due to five feet of water in his basement, which destroyed his oxygen machine, sleep apnea device and blood oxygen flow machine.

During the damage assessment, the man could not stand due to shortness of breath due to the loss of his medical devices, she wrote.