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Mid-Michigan dam failures: Looking back one year later

Wednesday marks one year since catastrophic flooding caused widespread damage in Midland, Gladwin Counties
Updated: May. 19, 2021 at 8:09 AM EDT
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MID-MICHIGAN (WJRT) - Exactly one year ago, many in Mid-Michigan had their lives changed forever when dams failed and brought catastrophic floodwaters, causing millions of dollars worth of damage.

Heavy rains beginning on May 17 inundated the Tittabawassee River watershed with 5 to 8 inches of rain in two days. Water from the 200-year rainfall event in Gladwin and Arenac counties rushed south toward the Edenville Dam near the Gladwin-Midland county line.

Around 5:45 p.m. on May 19, 2020, the Edenville Dam failed and allowed the contents of Wixom Lake to rush downstream toward the Sanford Dam, which quickly was inundated and failed hours later.

More than 10,000 people were evacuated that evening as floodwaters rose to record levels. The Tittabawassee River crested at its highest level in recorded history the next day before floodwaters eased.

The damage left behind reached over $175 million and changed lives forever. Some 250,000 homes, businesses and nonprofit organizations all were affected, according to the Midland County Board of Commissioners.

But miraculously, no lives were lost thanks to impeccable training for emergency responders.

Months before the dams failed, Midland and Gladwin counties worked together with Boyce Hydro and local first responders to come up with a plan in the event of a dam failure. Officials say this preparation was critical in preventing loss of life and helped them trigger evacuations sooner.

“I know that a lot of people have been really impacted by this. They’ve lost a lot and endured a lot, but knowing that we still have them with us through this, it’s amazing,” said Midland County Emergency Manager Jennifer Boyer.

For the people still living through this disaster, the one-year anniversary of the dam failures on Wednesday is somber. They are looking back at how their lives were changed forever a year ago.

“It’s really a milestone in what happened to the community but also about how fast we picked up the pieces and moved forward. It’s a very, very emotional day for most of us, a very sad day,” said Sanford Village President Dolores Porte.

Her village was nearly wiped out by the floodwaters a year ago. Since then, the community has been given an outpouring of support from around Mid-Michigan and all across the state.

Porte said she’s grateful for all of the help that has gotten them to where they are today.

An investigation into the incident revealed that the Edenville Dam was already in bad shape before the 200-year rainfall event last May. Boyce Hydro, which owned the structure at the time, ignored regulators and resisted safety upgrades for years.

The inspection report released shortly after the failure noted that the Edenville Dam posed a high hazard.

But the historic rainfall was really the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The main goal of a dam is to prevent flooding or overflow of water. This issue with the dams along the Tittabawassee River was, they were never meant to block flooding. The mainly exist to impound water and generate hydroelectric power.

“What comes in, goes out,” said Danny Costello, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service. “Unfortunately, when the dams failed, besides what comes in and goes out, you added the water that’s been sitting there all the time as a lake and that was your extra 4 feet of surge down the river.”

No dam is flood-proof, but manmade dams should be strong enough to hold water. Most dams are made with hard materials like rock, steel and lumber, but that was not the case for the Sanford Dam.

Dams also are designed with spillways to release excess water and prevent the structure from overflowing.

Regulation of most dams falls on states. Residents can also get community fact sheets from sites like FEMA if they believe a dam requires maintenance.

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