What will it take to protect Metro Detroiters from basement flooding?

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On the eastside of Detroit, car alarms alerted Terri Henderson to the water that was quickly overtaking her neighborhood in the early morning of Saturday June, 26. By the time she looked in the basement, the water was nearly up to the top of the stairs.

“Outside you couldn’t get out the front or back because the water was up to the steps,” Henderson said. “We called 911; couldn’t get through. Called the water department; no answers from anybody.”

This is the fifth flood Henderson has experienced since moving into her house on Marquette St, near the Detroit River in 2019. She has endured overbank flooding from the river that left sewage and fish in her basement, and a water main break. These events required her and her husband to replace water heaters, washers and dryers multiple times. And the floods have taken a toll on her health.

“I’m having a lot of challenges with breathing,” she said. She has asthma and was recently hospitalized for a pulmonary embolism. She’s worried that household mold — caused by repeated flooding —  is adding to her respiratory problems. It’s also stressful.  As a result of this most recent disaster, she said, “I’m not sleeping.”

Last weekend’s rain totaled more than 6 inches in some areas of southeast Michigan, hitting residents of Detroit, Dearborn and the Grosse Pointes especially hard. The disaster left people exhausted and concerned about the health dangers presented by mold and sewage-tainted flood water. It also left them wondering what kind of plan, if any, is on offer from state and local governments to address the region’s second “500-year flood” in the last decade. Detroit’s combined sewer system has proved unable to handle these events. And it’s unclear if projects like the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) efforts to replace sewer lines and install new detention basins will be enough to lessen flood risk. Meanwhile, adding additional lanes to I-75 and I-96 could increase flooding in the region, by adding more impervious surfaces that create runoff.

At a press conference on June 28, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and DWSD director Gary Brown identified climate change as a cause for heavier storms and increased flooding. But experts have predicted increased precipitation in the Great Lakes basin as a result of climate change for more than a decade. Nick Schroeck, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, says that the city officials have not prioritized climate action that might make a meaningful difference.  

What would make a difference? Experts and leaders tell Planet Detroit that the region needs to  make large-scale investments in green infrastructure to keep water out of the sewer system, remove roadways and other impervious surfaces that produce runoff, and plant more trees. The city also likely needs to improve its emergency response capabilities for communicating with residents during disasters and making sure Detroiters are able to get financial assistance after floods take place.  

Why the flood happened

The immediate causes for Detroit’s problems appear fairly straightforward. Historic levels of precipitation poured into a sewer system that did not have enough capacity to handle the volume. This was made worse by a partial failure at the GLWA’s Conner Creek pumping station, near where some of the heaviest rainfall occurred. Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller has requested an investigation into the failure at Conner Creek, which caused the Marter Pump Station on the border of Wayne and Macomb counties to also go down, resulting in backups in St. Clair Shores and Eastpointe. 

Power failures also hit pumping stations on low-lying portions of Interstate 94, contributing to the flooding of 350 vehicles. Days later, portions of expressways in southwest Detroit and Dearborn were still impassible. As of June 28, DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh said the utility had received 2,800 complaints about water in area basements and 7,000 calls.

Detroit’s combined sewer system poses other problems as well. These systems channel storm water and sewage through some of the same pipes on its way to treatment facilities. During heavy rains, this can lead to combined sewer overflows (CSOs), where untreated sewage enters waterways. 

CSO events have been a major problem in Detroit for years. Combined systems can also create backups of sewage into basements, as they did on June 26.

And the climate crisis is making these problems worse. Given the amount of rain the city can expect to receive in a changing climate, local infrastructure is “becoming only more and more dysfunctional and undersized,” Bill Shuster,  a professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University, told Planet Detroit.

In the Great Lakes region, climate change will produce “greater swings and extremes between dry and wet,” said John Deslippe, a water resources specialist at consulting engineering firm OHM Advisors. “Even though we might not get much more overall water in a five-year period, it’s going to come in bigger dumps like this.”

At Monday’s press conference, Brown said the flood was a “global warming issue that caused the capacity issue that has to be fixed.” But Schroeck called this a “half-excuse”. “The circumstances have been changing and we’ve known about this for a long time,” he said.

Indeed, scientists from federal agencies have been warning about increased precipitation and flooding in the Great Lakes region since at least the Second National Climate Assessment in 2009. Twelve years later, Detroit still doesn’t have a climate adaptation strategy, although one is being developed. When asked for comment on this, Duggan’s spokesperson John Roach pointed back to the Mayor’s comment from the press conference that, “nobody designs systems to handle two months of rain in one day.”

But the floods of 2014 might have been heeded as a warning for what Detroit experienced this year. Those floods resulted in an estimated $1.8 billion in damage and a federal disaster designation. That year’s high water was also made worse by pump station power failures on expressways. And although improvements have been made to these facilities, they still lack backup power.In 2020 an estimated 40 percent of the state’s freeway pumping stations were deemed to be in “poor” condition.

What this means for residents are huge bills to remediate mold, replace expensive appliances in their basements and major impacts on quality of life. Tracy Harper-Moore, who rents a house in Grosse Pointe Park, said that she lost everything in her basement and that it will take her a week to clean it all out. But her greatest concern isn’t her lost belongings, it’s her and her daughter’s health. 

“I am very nervous about all of our health,” she said, “because we don’t know what the repercussions are going to be from the standing water, the sewage.”

Harper-Moore has good reason to be concerned. A recent report from researchers at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University found that flooding in Detroit homes was associated with adult and childhood asthma, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that exposure to contaminated water can lead to infected wounds, tetanus and gastrointestinal illnesses. 

After Hurricane Katrina, mortality increased significantly in New Orleans in the months following the storm and its associated flooding. And research done in England found that anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increased following major floods.

How to build protections for Detroiters

Schroeck stresses that serious planning is needed at the city and state level to prevent flooding going forward. For starters, this might include fixes like securing backup power at pumping stations. But much broader changes will also be needed.

“We keep doubling down on resurfacing roads and adding lanes to roads. And all we’re doing is creating more pervious pavement where the water can’t soak into the ground, and it has to go somewhere,” Schroeck said, referring to the widening of portions of I-75 and I-94. He added that more roadways could result in more traffic, exacerbating climate change and that the added concrete would also trap heat, contributing to the risk from heat waves in the region.

Part of Detroit’s problem stems from the fact that the wetlands and creeks that historically existed in the area were paved or channeled into pipes, Schroeck said. Green infrastructure projects–like the recently completed bioretention basins on Oakman Boulevard on Detroit’s west side–could mimic the function of historical wetlands, catching rainwater and slowly releasing it into either the sewer system or the ground.

“The only real solution is to continue to build capacity to store that stormwater and then get and get it infiltrated,” Deslippe said. He adds that these projects can also create greenspace, providing a boon for neighborhoods and city ecology.

But flood mitigation measures will likely be needed at a massive scale. Designing systems to deal with historical storms may no longer be sufficient when “500-year storms” happen twice a decade. “We need to be looking at much more significant rain events in trying to adapt our current infrastructure or put in new infrastructure where possible,” Schroeck said.

Tree planting may also offer a partial solution. In addition to helping buffer against air pollution and heat, trees can catch up to 25% of rainfall and allow it to evaporate before hitting the ground. And a solid tree canopy will funnel some of the remaining precipitation down stems and trunks into the soil where it’s infiltrated by the channels created by roots.

Yet, whatever combination of solutions is rolled out, paying for new infrastructure is likely to be a major problem. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments  reports that it could cost $1 billion a year until 2045 to address stormwater problems in the seven counties in southeast Michigan alone. 

Yet, Shuster cautioned against looking at infrastructure costs in isolation. Noting the garbage trucks hauling away debris on his street in Grosse Pointe Park, he observed that his city and others would be paying massive bills for the cleanup, money that could have potentially been spent on preventing flooding in the first place.

Other changes will also be needed to keep Detroiters safe. State Sen. Stephanie Chang says that addressing the city’s emergency management system should also be a top priority. Many people reported being unable to get through to 911 to find out if they should evacuate or secure other help. She suggested there should be a way for residents to receive text-messages about unfolding emergencies rather than feeling like they need to call 911 to get updates.

Obtaining disaster aid might also be a problem for Detroiters, even if a federal disaster is declared. This assistance could take weeks to arrive, leaving Detroiters without the means to pay up front for hot water heaters or other necessities. Some state assistance is now available through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for low-income residents, although there is a lifetime limit of $1,500 per-household.

Research also shows that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gives more help to white people or those living in predominantly white areas than people of color. This could be a major challenge in predominantly Black Detroit. Following Hurricane Harvey in Houston, thousands of lawyers provided help for residents trying secure assistance from FEMA or insurance companies. It’s possible that similar efforts may be needed in Detroit.

On Detroit’s east side, Henderson doesn’t know if she can continue to cover the costs of repeated floods. She’s received help from her children in the past and the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) covered some of the costs from the water main break, although not as much as she says she was promised in a meeting with Gary Brown and GLWA officials. 

In light of her health problems and the mounting costs of recovering from five floods in two years, she and her husband wonder if they can remain in the city. “I’ve lived in Detroit all my life just about and I love Detroit, but this is wrong,” she said. “This is wrong how we’re being treated.”

As much as anything she wants to know what city leaders are doing to keep this from happening over and over again. “What’s the plan to make corrections?” she asks.


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