10K evacuated, state of emergency declared after Mich. dam break

Floodwaters rose after the breach of a trouble dam on the Tittabawassee River; Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called the major flooding "a historic event"


Garret Ellison
MLive.com, Walker, Mich.

MIDLAND COUNTY, Mich. — Large parts of mid-Michigan have been inundated with floodwaters following a breach at a Tittabawassee River hydroelectric dam long considered a safety concern by federal regulators who foresaw a potential calamity.

Widespread evacuations were ordered Tuesday, May 20, after the Edenville Dam’s earthen dike collapsed at the south end of Wixom Lake north of Midland and sent the combined force of an impoundment and the Tobacco River hurtling south toward Midland and beyond.

Tittabawassee Fire and Rescue rescued the driver from this red pickup truck in Saginaw County, Mich. The truck was swept off of the road by standing water. (Photo/Jake May, The Flint Journal via AP)
Tittabawassee Fire and Rescue rescued the driver from this red pickup truck in Saginaw County, Mich. The truck was swept off of the road by standing water. (Photo/Jake May, The Flint Journal via AP)

Floodwaters soon overtopped the Sanford Dam, compounding the situation. Water in downtown Midland could possibly reach 9 feet above flood stage today. The National Guard has been deployed and shelters are available for displaced residents.

Roughly 10,000 people are being evacuated.

Dow Chemical has shut down its Midland riverbank complex. The company has switched to local emergency footing and says it will “closely monitor” river levels.

“This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” said Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who announced an emergency declaration during a 10 p.m. press conference on Tuesday.

“I feel like I've said that a lot over the last number of weeks, but this truly is a historic event that is playing out in the midst of another historic event and so we need to make sure that we keep our wits about us and work on this together,” Whitmer said.

In 2018, federal energy regulators yanked the Edenville Dam’s operator’s license out of concern the spillway couldn’t pass enough water to avert a failure during a historic flood.

Boyce Hydro agreed to sell Edenville dam and three others to a local task force that hoped to oversee repairs and bring stability to impoundment lake levels after years of discord between dam owner Lee Mueller and lakefront homeowners.

The Four Lakes Task Force signed a $9.4 million purchase agreement in December to buy Wixom, Sanford, Secord and Smallwood lake bottomlands and the dams that regulate river impoundments from Boyce Trusts, according task force spokesperson Stacey Trapani.

However, “the deal had not been closed yet,” Trapani said. It was expected to close later this summer. “We were working through many of the details.”

Trapani said it was well known the Edenville Dam “needed some repairs.”

The 4.8 megawatt, 6,600-foot Edenville dam held back the Tittawabawassee and Tobbaco rivers at Edenville, Mich. It was built in 1925 and mostly used for flood control. Dam owner Mueller acquired the dam in 2004 and sold power generated by its operations to Consumers Energy.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) records indicate capacity issues at the Edenville Dam spillway were cited as problematic dating back to the late 1990s.

In a 2018 filing, regulators characterized Boyce Hydro as chronically non-compliant with regulatory requests to upgrade the dam. The commission wanted Mueller to build additional spillways to reduce the risk of failure. The dam had six spillways at two sites.

Boyce Hydro “has repeatedly failed to comply” with regulators who wanted Mueller to “develop and implement plans and schedules to address the fact that the project spillways are not adequate to pass the probable maximum flood, thereby creating a grave danger to the public,” FERC deputy secretary Nathaniel Davis wrote.

Following the Edenville Dam collapse Tuesday, the Tittabawassee River matched its record 1986 crest of 33.9 feet in downtown Midland early Wednesday morning, according to the National Weather Service. It is expected to crest today 4 feet above that, at 38 feet. The 1986 flood was considered a 500-year event.

Tuesday’s dam breaches follow record levels of rainfall north of Midland that caused widespread flash flooding along Northeast Michigan rivers.

“To go through this in the midst of a global pandemic is almost unthinkable,” Whitmer said during her Tuesday night press conference.

Rebecca and Steve Malkin left their Sanford home just before 7 p.m. Tuesday and spent the night at the Midland High School, which was opened as a shelter.

Four emergency shelters were set up around Midland. The Michigan State Police, National Guard and American Red Cross are providing support.

“We don’t know what we’re gonna come home to,” Steve Malkin said. “If we got a home.”

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©2020 MLive.com, Walker, Mich.

 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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