It's Deja vu All Over Again for Metro Detroit Flood Victims Despite Past Promises

Christine MacDonald

Detroit Free Press

Detroiter Vernon Allen loves his hometown but draining several feet of rainwater and sewage from his basement after his fourth flood in 10 years has him at a breaking point.

The retiree's curbside on Fairview Street — much like many of his east side neighbors' — was full of belongings this week: chairs, carpet, artwork, garbage bags of clothes, including several of his wife's mink church hats with tags still attached. The hot water tank, furnace, couches and likely his beloved "man cave" pool table will need to go, too. His basement freezer floated in the deluge. 

He estimates $45,000 in losses. But that's not what he wants to talk about. 

"I don’t want to talk about the damage. I want to talk about the solution," said Allen, a 78-year-old former deputy city clerk who lives in the Jefferson Village II development. "What are you going to do to solve the problem? If they don’t do something, it’s going to happen again." 

Repeated flooding has plagued homeowners in cities across the region in recent years, with Detroit, the Grosse Pointes and Dearborn getting hit hardest in last weekend's latest round. After each event, government officials offer similar reasonings for the breakdowns: historic rainfall stressed aging infrastructure beyond its capacity. Investigations are launched, lawsuits filed and promises are made.

But this time some are hopeful it’s a wake-up call that will force solutions that stick.

"Everybody is exhausted," said William Shuster, chair of Wayne State University's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and an expert in storm and wastewater management who himself lost a vehicle to the weekend flooding. "This is an equal opportunity disruptor, destroyer of health, property and morale."

"This latest insult, environmental and otherwise, has really tipped the balance."

Sue McCormick is the Chief Executive Officer for Great Lakes Water Authority.

On Friday, Sue McCormick, chief executive of the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) said flooding was caused by an intense amount of rain — more than what typically falls in June — which, at times, overwhelmed parts ofthe system, but did not disable it completely. She did acknowledge electrical problems hampered two of Detroit's east-side pump stations run by the authority: Conner Creek and Freud.

“(The flood) was not caused by any single pumping station or any single element within the regional system. Conner Creek pump station did not fail,” McCormick said at a Friday afternoon news conference. "The current system functioned at its capacity in the circumstance we had."

McCormick said she'll ask the authority board to conduct an independent investigation because of the "magnitude of the event" and "the public's interest regarding its impact." 

Her statements came a day after Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller called for an inquiry. While Miller acknowledged no system can handle 6 to 7 inches of rainfall, she questioned whether human error played a role. 

The Conner Creek and Freud pump stations work together to transport the flow of runoff water from Detroit’s east side, Grosse Pointe Park, Grosse Pointe Farms, Grosse Pointe and the Southeast Michigan Sanitary District. Thousands of basements and cars were flooded in those communities. 

Sue McCormick, chief executive of the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) said that electrical problems hampered the functionality of the Connors Creek Pumping Station on Jefferson Avenue.

“The bottom line is, all pumps need to be operational and they need full backup power. They need to be fully staffed during severe rain events,” Miller said in a statement Friday afternoon after a GLWA news conference. 

The Freud pump station is divided into three transformers and each can carry a load for three pumps despite a total of six pumps at the station, McCormick said. 

“The power generator can only support two pumps, so we were using the maximum capacity available,” McCormick said. 

At Conner Creek, McCormick said the generator is used to back up the external power source and that the problem was an internal power issue. She said staffing was based on weather predictions of 1.5 inches of rain. Nearly 6 inches fell, according to city of Detroit officials. 

Looking back

Wayne State's Shuster said the extreme rainfall was exacerbated by already saturated soil Friday night. In southeastern Michigan, combined sewer systems are the norm, which means storm runoff combines with sewage, often overwhelming water treatment facilities in periods of heavy rain.

"It’s hard to tell if the (all) pumps were operating if it would have made a difference," Shuster said. "What we have are unpredictable rainfall events and this converges with undersized infrastructure. That’s why it’s so pronounced."

In 2014, heavy rains damaged many homes throughout metro Detroit including the home of  Theresa Chiang and her boyfriend Robert Baulch.

In 2014, more than 100,000 homes flooded because of 4½ inches of rainfall in the metropolitan area and storm damages reached nearly $1 billion. Former President Barack Obama declared the state a disaster, unlocking the potential for federal aid for anyone affected. Floods in various metro Detroit communities followed in 2016, 2019 and 2020, when the area was hit again with several inches of rain, leaving vehicles and basements flooded for some a second or third time. 

Bob Daddow, a former GLWA board member who left the authority two years ago, said he was surprised by the Conner Creek breakdown. The pump station was identified as a significant problem after the 2014 flood. 

At that time, Conner Creek needed to be a manually turned on, said Daddow, former deputy county executive. And during that heavy 2014 flooding, "nobody could get to the switch."

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown told the Detroit City Council on Tuesday that $30 million has been invested in the Conner Creek pumping stations since 2016 flooding caused by pump failures. GLWA said it is in the design stage of spending another $250 million on upgrades to Conner Creek and Freud. 

The Conner Creek system begins at 8 Mile Road east of Van Dyke Avenue and ends at Conner Street and Jefferson Avenue. It is the GLWA's largest combined sewer overflow control facility. The GLWA formed in 2014 as a part of Detroit's bankruptcy restructuring, entering into a long-term lease with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department system that had been city-run for 180 years.

Planning to improve

Daddow said putting off repairs and maintenance has been a chronic problem for the system. In 2014, officials estimated about $700 million in maintenance costs before they knew the full scope of need, he said.

Today, $1.7 billion of capital investments is needed over the next five years, officials said. 

In 2019, GLWA was only spending at a pace of about $150 million a year on improvement projects, which Daddow said he thought was too slow. Next year, it is set to spend $285 million, officials said. 

“We are constantly playing catch-up at this point," said Shuster of Wayne State. "We are not keeping up infrastructure-wise. The infrastructure was built for a different time and place and that’s changed."

For example, more than $25 million has been spent on freeway pump station rehabilitations in the last five years, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation. Still, 40% of metro Detroit freeway pump stations are in poor condition. Another $27 million is expected to be spent on rehab over the next five years. 

Detroit resident watched as floodwater continues to block sections of I-94 near the Livernois Avenue exit in Detroit two days after heavy rains flooded homes, businesses and freeways.

Several metro Detroit freeways flooded last weekend, stranding hundreds of motorists after 10 Wayne County pump stations lost power that resulted in tow bills as high as $1,500. Eastbound Interstate-94 from Michigan Avenue to West Grand Boulevard could be closed for another week or more.

MDOT is exploring whether to install backup power at pumps without generators, which could cost up to $50 million. The power outages contributed to the freeway flooding but the massive amount of rainfall was a major factor, officials stressed. 

"Water can only be pumped so quickly and there needs to be a place for it to go," MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson wrote in an email.

Climate change is going to make these storms much more common and the area needs to focus on green infrastructure solutions, said Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash. A state report last year, said Michigan experienced record precipitation in 2019 — 41.83 inches, or more than 10 inches higher than average.

"The choices are those big pipes, pumps, tanks and systems, gray infrastructure," Nash said. "Or the green infrastructure that prevents the water from getting into it in the first place."

But frustrated residents continue to question whether current infrastructure is functioning as it should.

Dearborn resident Hiba Haidous experienced floods in 2014 and this year. Both Haidous and her parents’ homes on Dearborn’s Oakman Boulevard were hit hard, leaving furniture swimming in the basement, broken appliances and a loss of sentimental items.

Her parents were out of town as she bounced between her home and theirs, attempting to mitigate damages on little to no sleep. Their homes were inundated by “pure black water,” and she wants answers.

“I don’t feel like the city is taking it serious,” Haidous said. “We don’t have that respect that we are giving them. … I’m scared. It’s not easy for us to live in that space.”

Haidous’ family in 2014 lived in a home on Middlepointe Street, which her brother is renovating and faced similar devastation from Saturday’s flood. But it was the same story, she said, with soaked furniture, emptied pantries and doors that wouldn't close.

Dearborn resident Hiba Haidous experienced floods in 2014 and this year. Both Haidous and her parents’ homes on Dearborn’s Oakman Boulevard were hit hard, leaving furniture swimming in the basement, broken appliances and a loss of sentimental items.

“At the end, FEMA only covered $1,200. Not a single dollar is worth what we went through. I don’t care if they lay me down $20,000,” Haidous said. “We haven’t slept. We haven’t ate. It’s not normal … the fact that this is the second or third time that this happened to the community or residents, it’s not OK.”

Free Press staff writer Keith Matheny contributed to this report.

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