Midland dam failures, flooding and evacuations: U-M experts available

Richard Norton

Richard Norton

Thousands of central Michigan residents living along the Tittabawassee River are evacuating after rapidly rising waters overtook dams there. The Michigan governor warned that downtown Midland could be under about 9 feet of water Wednesday. The evacuations come as Michigan remains under a stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

University of Michigan experts are available to discuss various aspects of this situation.

Richard Norton , professor of urban and regional planning, trains local officials and residents on coastal management to help them better understand the threats posed by climate change, especially when building near Great Lakes coastlines and within floodplains. Norton and other researchers in the Resilient Michigan program help Great Lakes coastal communities make sound land use and development decisions that account for fluctuating water levels and increasing storminess.

"The flooding that is occurring today in Midland is about the most extreme ’extreme flooding event’ a community might experience,” he said. "Unfortunately, these kinds of events will become much less extreme over time-both in terms of how frequently they happen and how damaging they are when they do happen-because of climate change.”

The Midland flooding is also highlighting two aspects of our current development patterns that will put us at increased risk as these extreme events become more common, Norton said. The first is that we haven’t planned our infrastructure to accommodate these kinds of storms.

"Infrastructure like the Edenville and Sanford dams are designed to work up to some event threshold but apparently not the kind of flooding we’ve been experiencing,” he said. "Those kinds of infrastructure failures-both large like dams but also smaller failures like flooded storm drains and retention ponds-will only increase as storms get worse.”

This flood also highlights a second aspect of climate change that is becoming more common-that our current floodplain maps, which identify areas where we should expect trouble, are increasingly outdated, both because of the larger storms we’re experiencing and because so much development has occurred within floodplain areas, Norton said.

"That increased development has put more homes and other structures directly in harm’s way, and it has increased the amount of paved surfaces within the watershed, which in turn accelerates flow of floodwaters directly into streams and rivers rather than letting it soak into the ground, making the flood even worse,” he said.

"So, storms are getting bigger and more frequent, the infrastructure we have in place to handle flood waters is under-designed for those storms, and the maps and policies we have in place to minimize and manage flooding-and keep people out of harm’s way-are increasingly outdated. These kinds of events should be clarion calls to communities to revisit their floodplain maps and their plans for handling the increasing storminess we will all be experiencing.”

2018 Michigan News story about the Resilient Michigan program

Allen Burton is a professor of environment and sustainability and of earth and environmental sciences, director of U-M’s Institute for Global Change Biology, and editor-in-chief of the journal Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry.

"The Tittabawassee River flows through the middle of the Dow Chemical plant, which includes a federal Superfund site stretching downstream, with dioxin contamination,” he said. "Potential risks from the flooding include the rupturing of storage tanks, thus releasing chemicals, contaminated sediments and soils that wash downstream and spread onto farmland, residential areas, and the many cabins that line the river.

"This potential contamination-if it happened-would likely include a wide range of chemicals not only from Dow, but from other industries, commercial activities, and homes. Also, local wastewater treatment plants along the river could flood, thereby releasing raw sewage.”

Sue Anne Bell is an assistant professor of nursing and expert on disaster response, community health and emergency care.

"Planning for and responding to any disaster is challenging enough, layering a pandemic on top of that presents a whole other range of issues to address,” she said. "The resources needed to support Michigan communities affected by the dam failures are already focused on COVID. Ultimately, the goals of both pandemic response and disaster response are to prevent harm and loss of life, and those two response systems will have to merge to address both at the same time-a huge challenge but one where the choice is clear.”

Ben van der Pluijm , a geologist and professor of earth and environmental sciences, is an expert on the societal impacts of geohazards.

"Heavy rains are among the regional predictions of anthropogenic climate warming, putting waterway management under stress,” he said. "Earthen dams are different from concrete dams and are built for certain historic flood levels. They quickly degrade when those levels are exceeded-especially when they are overtopped-leading to a breach, just like New Orleans years ago.”

Drew Gronewold , a hydrologist and associate professor of environment and sustainability, says the floodwaters in Midland will eventually flow into Saginaw Bay, contributing to ongoing record-high Great Lakes water levels. He can discuss historical, current and future Great Lakes water levels, including the hydrologic conditions that contribute to water level variability.

"Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie have been consistently breaking monthly water level records through the spring,” he said. "All three could, if they continue rising, break all-time record highs. Lake Erie set a new all-time record high last summer.”

Amy Schulz , professor of health behavior and health education, can discuss the impact of the floods on low-income residents. Her research focuses on social factors that contribute to health with a particular focus on social and physical environmental factors and their effects on health, health equity and urban health.

"This will create challenges as residents are displaced and need to find temporary housing that allows social distancing,” she said. "Supports to assure appropriate housing will be critical to prevent further spread of COVID-19.”
Contact: ajschulz@umich.edu


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