SANFORD, Mich. (WJRT) - Friday marked three years since the Edenville Dam broke open and the Sanford Dam failed, causing catastrophic flooding along the Tittabawassee River.
The Edenville Dam failed and floodwaters overwhelmed the Sanford Dam downstream. The wall of water washed away homes and dreams on May 19, 2020.
Since then, the recovery process has been long. The dried up areas that Wixom and Sanford lakes used to fill are a reminder of the devastation left behind.
But there are signs that life is slowly returning to normal in areas inundated by record-breaking floods.
Porte Park in Sanford is hosting several activities this weekend, including a car show on Friday evening.
The village of Sanford was hit hard by the floods when the Edenville Dam breached, causing a rush of water that damaged the Sanford Dam. About a quarter of houses in Sanford were destroyed in the floods.
But Sanford has been rising in the past three years. Homes have been rebuilt or repaired. Businesses have reopened and new ones have come into town.
VILLAGE PRESIDENT 'AMAZED' BY PROGRESS
Sanford Village President Delores Porte has been on the forefront of this effort to rebuild this town and is really amazed at the progress.
"It's amazing. You know, this was underwater three years ago and I think most of us didn't know what was going to happen next and how we're going to come back," she said. "But we're very proud of how fast we came back and all the new things we have in town."
Porte said the Sanford community still has a long way to go before recovery will be complete.
"Financially, the businesses have been hurting, the residents have been hurt. So there is still that underbelly of the situation, where people have suffered a financial hardship," she said.
CAR SHOW DEMONSTRATES RESILIENCE
Neil Provost, who organized Friday's car show, said his house and insurance business both sustained major damage in the floods three years ago. He says the community came together and brought Sanford back to where it is now.
Thinking back to what happened over the past three years brings back a lot of emotions for Provost.
"It's so up and down. I mean, after this happened -- I do insurance for a living. So seeing what people went through and trying to help people through that time was complete devastation for this area," he said.
Provost credited the Sanford community for being resilient to bounce back and be able to celebrate the anniversary three years after the floods.
"We were such a resilient community, how we've all came together, became stronger and now we're doing events like this where everybody's here to help each other," Provost said. "And that's ... a blessing to be part of a community like this."
REPORT BLAMES LACK OF MAINTENANCE
A report issued two years after the dam failures found that the incident was foreseeable and preventable. A five-member panel appointed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded that the Edenville and Sanford dams were not properly maintained.
Boyce Hydro bought the dams in 2004, but failed to ever make the needed repairs. In 2018, FERC took away the license for the dam's hydropower generator to continue operating.
Residents along Wixom and Sanford lakes are looking ahead to another summer of grassy fields where they used to swim, boat and enjoy waterfront life. They will have to wait a couple more years before the lakes refill.
Construction has begun on restoring the Smallwood and Secord dams in Gladwin County. The Four Lakes Task Force, which owns all four Tittabawassee River dams, plans to restore Secord and Smallwood lakes by 2024.
Projects to repair the washed out Edenville and Sanford dams will begin soon after. The task force hopes to restore Sanford Lake by 2025 and Wixom Lake by 2026.
Original estimated costs to replace or restore the Edenville and Sanford dams dropped significantly since original estimates in the fall of 2020.
Lawsuits have been filed against the federal government, the state of Michigan, Boyce Hydro and insurance companies to compensate residents for losses caused by the dam failures.
Many people affected by the life changing floods are still waiting for financial relief three years later. The latest lawsuit was filed last month by 10 couples who live along what was once Wixom Lake.
They're seeking nearly $12 million from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The lawsuit argues the government didn't do enough to make sure the dam was properly maintained.
But claimants on the class action lawsuit filed just days after the disaster say they have not been paid. Attorneys say it's time for the state to take some responsibility.
"An overwhelming majority of our clients have gotten literally zero -- zero in insurance money or relief money whatsoever," said attorney Ven Johnson, who represents dozens of residents in lawsuits related to the dam failures.
The state has claimed governmental immunity, which has tied up litigation in court.