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National

2 Dams Breach, Cause Major Flooding In Michigan

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Michigan, 10,000 people evacuated, homeowners paddling down residential streets, water visible through first-floor windows. That's the scene in Midland about 140 miles north of Detroit, where historic flooding breached two nearby dams. Earlier today I talked to the city's mayor Maureen Donker. She had just left Midland High School, where many families had spent the night.

MAUREEN DONKER: We have fabulous community members who are there and volunteering and bringing food. We have physicians who are there checking on folks to make sure that they were OK. So we know that, you know, we could be, you know, seeing even more people there.

SHAPIRO: You said that people are sheltering in the school gymnasium. And in this time of social distancing and COVID-19, I wonder whether that presents its own concern.

DONKER: Of course it does. It was interesting. So the school superintendent got there yesterday, you know, opened up the school, spent the whole night there. And of course he's, you know, working to make sure all of that is happening. So the cots are far apart. I was just - actually came from there, and they're disinfecting things every two hours. They have masks for everyone. They're washing sheets. We've got, you know, sanitation jobs (ph). So they have got an incredible system already set up.

SHAPIRO: I know that Midland businesses were already dealing with financial issues because of the economic crunch. If they are now flooded, it seems like this is going to be a really difficult blow to recover from.

DONKER: This is devastating. This is devastating. I would say that one of our strengths as a community is fortitude. So we have a lot of 20-mile marchers, you know, people who just, you know, will work really hard - that Midwest spirit here in Midland. But yes, this is not going to be an easy thing.

SHAPIRO: I want to ask you about the dams around Midland. Both of them are almost 100 years old. And in 2018, the federal government revoked the license for the Edenville dam, saying it likely would not survive a major flood. The area around Midland has had a lot of big floods, although, as you say, none quite this big. Why wasn't more done to shore up these dams?

DONKER: Well, the dams are a privately owned, so that's what I can say about that. So Midland is in a valley. You know, we've had flooding before. I can't answer that question why more hasn't been done for those dams. None of them are within the city of Midland. They're all north of where we are.

SHAPIRO: You sound frustrated that you weren't protected.

DONKER: Well, I - let me just say that could certainly be better - done better. But what does that mean? I don't have an answer for that.

SHAPIRO: Dow Chemical is based in Midland right near the river.

DONKER: It is.

SHAPIRO: Have you heard anything...

DONKER: It is.

SHAPIRO: ...From them about how they've been affected?

DONKER: Yes, they - I mean, they have a person here that's been on-site with us. They've had some issues with their tertiary pond. They're on top of it. They're working very closely, you know, with all of us to make sure - because we're a community. You know, we're a community. Everyone who works at Dow - you know, most people who work at Dow live here in Midland, and, you know, we're all in this together.

SHAPIRO: I know that Midland's going to need a lot of help in the coming weeks and months, but is there anything right now that you need from the state or the federal government that you feel you're not getting?

DONKER: Right now we are in crisis mode, and so we are working through the crisis. The governor is in contact with FEMA. You know, I think right now we're getting the support that we need. Once we're out of this crisis mode, that's when the support becomes critical.

SHAPIRO: Mayor Maureen Donker of Midland, Mich., thank you for talking with us today.

DONKER: OK. Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.