OPINION: 5 ways to bring Detroit’s underground infrastructure challenges out of the dark and into the light

My grandmother always said what you do in the dark, will always come to the light.  Well, in Detroit and other surrounding cities, what you DON’T do in the dark, will also come to the light.  

Water infrastructure is not something people really worry about until there is a crisis because most of it is underground.  But in the Detroit metro area, we have witnessed the power of water these past couple of days, and in fact the past couple of years. 

My parents who have been life-long Detroiters, experienced their fifth flood in their Eastside home on June 26 after Detroit experienced record-breaking rain. 

That’s five floods in two years. It seems a little extreme, right?  Well, the situation is extreme.  Even after my parents and I brought our concerns to the Detroit Water and Sewer Department in December 2020, there has been no resolution. The process and the information that they have asked us to share  — multiple times over the four floods in two years — has been a heavy lift. The People, in our opinion,  have NOT been a priority for the city of Detroit.

In addition to severe disinvestment in our water infrastructure, other factors have led to this increased vulnerability for my parents: a lack of maintenance of current water infrastructure and a lack of investment in green stormwater infrastructure across the region.

But I have sat in focus groups with Detroiters working on flooding issues where city engineers have said that a lot of the backups are due to residents “not cleaning or snaking” their drains. That’s understandable to a certain extent. But it does not account for all cases of flooding across the city. We see a lack of accountability by our local and regional agencies that are responsible for planning and managing water service and delivery.

I’ve worked on flooding issues across the country and unfortunately, the same people from the same types of communities are disproportionately impacted.  A 2019 study by the National Academy of Sciences on Urban Flooding in the United States – ironically published when my parents experienced their first flood on the Eastside of Detroit – highlighted the profile of populations that are socially vulnerable to flooding: nonwhite, non-native English speakers, elderly, poor, chronically ill, uninsured and renters.  

Does this profile sound familiar as it relates to other social tragedies – COVID-19, water affordability, air pollution?  It would be interesting to document how many of these issues also affect Detroiters that have experienced flooding over the past seven years.  Some of that work has started with a recent flood report on Detroit households. 

The cumulative impacts of environmental insults on these same communities raise the issue of environmental and social injustices.  For example, the history of redlining did not only legally allow housing segregation, but it also allowed the development of inferior infrastructure in Black, Brown, and immigrant neighborhoods. 

In the early 1800s, the cholera epidemic – which is the result of poor sanitation and lack of access to safe drinking water – caused the death of poor and working-class folks that lived in New York City’s Five Points community, described by one city leader back then as “inhabited by a race of beings of all colors, ages, sexes, and nations, though generally of but one condition, and that . . . of the vilest brute.”      

Research documents that governmental leaders thought of this community as dispensable, stating “in the early stages of the outbreak there was no cause for alarm because the disease only attacked the intemperate and filthy” –essentially defined by them as including people of color, immigrants, and the poor.  Again, I’m not surprised. 

Ever since I started working on issues of environmental justice 20+ years ago, that same sentiment of who matters resonates.  I think about my parents and others that continue to be the victims of systemic and institutional racism that impedes their quality and quantity of life, by no fault of their own.  We’ve seen it in COVID and we continue to see this manifest in climate injustice. 

Extreme weather will impact our low-income communities and communities of color first and it will hit them worse.   So how do we move forward from this flooding crisis, and actually build the climate-resilient, healthy communities Detroiters and others deserve? 

I suggest the following five considerations that the City, our state government, and others in leadership need to consider as we work through recovery, restoration, and reconciliation:

  1. Respect the civil rights of citizens as we clean up this disaster

The Fair Share Housing Center in New Jersey and its partners worked to develop guidelines to help apply federal civil rights laws to state and local governments, particularly those that receive federal funding to recover from disasters. Use them as we spend public funds to clean up this one. Provide enhanced outreach to low- and moderate-income communities that have been underserved by the recovery to date, including enhanced partnerships with community groups and housing counseling to help people who are facing financial distress in recovery. Protect survivors, volunteers, and paid workers engaged in recovery efforts from exposure to environmental health and safety hazards and communicating with them about the health and safety hazards involved in cleanup work.

  1. Implement recovery and action with the spirit of the Principles of Environmental Justice

Those that are hit the first and worst are often the least equipped to recover from a disaster, let alone navigate the complex systems for accessing resources to get back to some sense of normalcy.  Resources and help should be prioritized for people and communities that are experiencing multiple vulnerabilities that include, but are not limited to, repeated flooding (this not being the first time); loss of income; high health risk due to extreme heat, and other environmental factors (i.e. living in a community with higher air pollution) and those with existing flood claims that have NOT been resolved.  Prioritize the needs of those communities that have been made MORE vulnerable by our faulty systems. 

  1. Mandate involvement of the Detroit Health Department

When my parents’ home flooded in early 2019, we did not anticipate nor understand the impact and danger of mold.  My mom is unfortunately still dealing with health conditions that were directly related to mold exposure.  

This could possibly have been avoided if recovery included health as a priority consideration.  Health professionals need to be engaged RIGHT NOW to educate and prevent exposures – particularly in this hot weather – in communities that have experienced flooding. The city of Detroit and others need to provide a protocol and financial support that provides testing for mold, temporary lodging assistance, and financial support to allow residents to properly clean, sanitize, and remediate their homes.  

This article documents Detroit resident’s concerns about flooding, health, and other social factors that increase vulnerability and make residents “sitting ducks.” As a public health researcher, prevention is a tenet of public health practice. Let’s operationalize it.

  1. Hold the Detroit Water and Sewage Department and the Great Lakes Water Authority accountable 

Detroiters and others pay taxes to be protected and provided with services that allow folks to turn on their tap and get clean water, step outside their home without fear of landing in a puddle of sewage, and not get nervous when it starts to rain, with fear of seeing the water rising in their basements…yet again.  

There needs to be a thorough investigation of the infrastructure – starting with examining and investing in water infrastructure in communities that have experienced repeated flooding to uncover the real reasons why certain homes are repeatedly living with water in their basements.   

The Flood Survivor’s Manifesto, offered by a group of flood survivors working nationally, speaks to many issues, namely “It’s people, not expensive properties, that need support after a flood..  DWSD needs to create a “People’s Advisory Team” that will offer grassroots brilliance and common sense to help protect these communities from future flooding.  

  1. Revamp the systems that harm us the most: FEMA, insurance, and the lack of planning 

FEMA’s flood maps are old and dated and are not inclusive of the most current climate impacts.  They must be updated.  Flood insurance needs to be affordable, particularly for our communities that are most vulnerable. 

It’s time to prioritize people.  The truth has once again come to the light in lieu of another crisis.  Racism, complacency, unaccountability can no longer be tolerated.  Let’s not let this crisis be a repeated offense.  


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