Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Lucky Times Three

For anyone who watches the news, it isn't news that Mid-Michigan, where I live, has had its share of troubles lately.   First, we are surrounded by gun-toting, mask-less extremists who insist that being asked not to contract and spread Covid-19 is a violation of their Personal Liberty. Although they are reportedly a minority, they include people we know. People we used to trust.  People I have no interest in ever seeing again.  Besides being surrounded by idiots, we are also surrounded by water.   

Michigan has about 2000 dams, I have read, and most of them are privately owned.   Most of them were built to create recreational areas, and most of them could not be built today under modern regulations.   Two dams northwest of us have been in the news for years because they were old and they were failing, but, as is true for most of this country's old dams, no one wanted to pay for their repair.   

Just last year, a FEMA report concluded that the southern towns -- like Midland, where I like -- would  be seriously damaged if those dams failed and also concluded that the dams were increasingly likely to fail.   Much of the Midland area borders rivers and creeks, and much of it is low lying.  Our house is on a creek that runs off of the Tittabawassee River, into which the floodwaters are released as needed to control the lake levels in Wixom and Sanford Lakes, so that people could enjoy their lovely lakefront properties.  Dow Chemical plant is also downriver from those dams.   That water from the river eventually runs down to the Saginaw Bay and into Lake Huron.  

The Four Lakes Task Force was formed in July 2019 to try to figure out how to protect the dams, but the local people objected at public meetings to anything that would cost them money.  Many (many) people lived on the lakes created by the dams, and they did not want their taxes to go up, and also did not want the water levels to go down, not even a foot or two, because the higher lake levels meant that they could have bigger boats and better fishing.   

Which brings us to this week.

We had several days of persistent rain.   The water levels were rising, but neither dam operator decided to release any water.   We received 911 texts telling us that the dams were structurally sound but that there could be some  localized flooding.   We kept a close eye on the creek in our back yard, and although the levels raised quite a bit, it didn't look dangerous.

And then the fire trucks arrived on our street, lights flashing.  We were alerted that the dam breakage was imminent and that we had to leave.  This is our first year here, and obviously the area has no history of breaking dams, so we didn't know what to expect.   We are not in a flood plain, we were careful about that when we bought the house, but we could see that the creek levels were much higher than usual.  So we moved a few things in the basement to a higher shelf -- I brought up the goose decoy that my brother made, but didn't even think to move my box of quilts upstairs since they were on a shelf.     I was woefully unprepared to leave.  For one thing, between my surgery and the quarantine, I had only driven away from the house a couple of times this year and no longer have any real memory of what I might need when I am away.   For another, I have just gotten so lazy.   For years, when I lived alone, I always kept a "go bag," with medications, clothing, flashlight and copies of insurance and identification, among other things.   I took that bag apart when I got married so that I could replace the documents, and I never got it together again.   We grabbed what we could think of and left, each of us driving a different car.  Almost immediately I realized that I didn't even have my wallet.   I turned around to get it, but the police wouldn't let me back into our street.  It was then that I remembered the quilts, and realized that there were a million things we should have brought with us, but too late to do anything about it.

I have read that, at the peak of the rainfall, the dams were over-topped and were releasing 5000 cubic feet of water a second.  That was when we were home and the creek was high.  When the dams broke, they released 60,000 cubic feet per second.  

In Sanford, up river nine miles northwest of us, whole houses were swept away  Every single business in that small town was destroyed.  The lakes where people lived are now empty, with boats and docks and household debris swept into huge piles.  Whole neighborhoods have disappeared.    Amazingly, no one was killed.

When we were evacuated, we went to Jack's old house, which is in a dry zone.   It was the first time that we were happy he hadn't gotten it ready yet to sell.  Within a few hours we saw a Facebook notice that the sewer system had been shut down, so we drove north to my brother's house.  He was delighted to have us, and we were able to pick up a birthday cake along the way to unexpectedly celebrate his 80th birthday, which normally we would have skipped because of the quarantine.   Our time there was a silver lining in a stressful time as we watched the news and realized how serious this event was going to be.   When we were finally allowed to go home, I arrived first and found that Jack had ordered a bouquet of flowers, which was standing on our front porch.   He didn't know what I would find inside, and he wanted me to remember that we would be okay.

I am still amazed to say that our house was not damaged.   I keep double checking because I still can't believe that it's true.   We can see on the outside of the door frame where the water lapped against the doorwall that leads out of our basement, and there was a little seepage on the carpet inside.   There was no standing water, but a small section of the carpet was damp.   Not wet, merely damp.   The basement has an unpleasant odor, but there was no sewage back up.   We will have the carpet cleaned and sanitized and, if that does not fix the smell, we will have it replaced, but as far as we can tell, nothing else is wrong.  When things settle down and workmen are available, we will investigate what we can do to further protect our property in the event of future flooding.


Our community continues to play on the national news.  Volunteers have poured in from all over the country, as far south as Louisiana, we're told.  Local churches, including a yellow shirt team from the Latter Day Saints and a non-denominational group called Samaritan's Purse, are helping to clean out basements and remove debris, working up to twelve hours a day, in nearly 90 degree heat, on houses they don't own, for people they don't know.   

Our neighborhood is southeast of the dam area so the destruction is less dramatic, but it has been affected.    The people in the house immediately to the left of ours have piles of wet carpet and furniture and dry wall on the curb for pick up.   

The people down the street had five feet of sewage in their basement, and another had 7 feet of floodwater and dozens of dead fish in their daughter's bedroom.   

But the neighbor to the right of us says they did not have a single drop of water in their house.    And we have a few inches of damp carpet.   The undamaged among us feel guilty.   The young ones are going out to help the neighbors.   I have volunteered my whole life but, at 70, I don't seem to have the energy to offer much assistance.  As became true in the Search and Rescue group, I am more likely to be a liability than an aid, so I stand back, send money, and feel guilty.  Guilty and very, very lucky.

Addendum:
Today the Four Lakes Task Force released this statement:
       Recent events related to the Edenville dam failure were terrible and tragic for our community. All of us on the Four Lakes Task Force are devastated by our individual and collective losses, and our hearts go out to everyone who is impacted. The Lake Associations and Counties were in the process of acquiring the dams, with a closing expected, and then to improve the dams to survive historic floods. The acquisition has not and will not take place under the terms that were negotiated with Boyce Hydro this past winter.
       We are reassessing the path forward to acquire the Boyce property and rebuild our dams and lakes. The Four Lakes Task Force is collaborating with the Counties, lake communities and regulatory authorities on the best path forward as we assess the issues and work toward recovery.
Class Action lawsuits have already been filed, blaming everyone and everything.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Well, I’m just so impressed by both the selflessness and the selfishness of the folks who have helped and hindered. Recent events have brought out the best and the worst in folks. I’m so relieved you fared well, and Jack...what a sweetie. He’s a keeper for sure...and so are you.