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Michigan Flood Evacuees Must Deal With Displacement, Social Distancing

NOEL KING, HOST:

Downtown Midland, Mich., is knee-deep in water today. Forty-eight hours of heavy rain caused by two dams - caused two dams on the Tittabawassee River to fail. Ten thousand people left their homes. And at this point, no one knows when it will be safe for them to go back. Here's Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Shelter organizers at Midland High School are being really careful. This is where some of the oldest and frailest residents of the flooded city have been evacuated. Cots are six feet apart. Nearly everyone's wearing masks. Pat Wood (ph) is sitting in the gymnasium with two friends who live in the same senior citizen complex. She didn't sleep well.

PAT WOOD: I slept on that cot and I had leg cramps all night. So I just get up and walk around it.

SAMILTON: Luckily, she now has a mattress. And she's being spoiled by eager volunteers, along with donations of Starbucks coffee, food, blankets, kitty litter - you name it.

WOOD: So, in fact, we'd like to stay.

(LAUGHTER)

WOOD: And if we become homeless, this wouldn't be too bad.

SAMILTON: Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer dropped by the school after an aerial tour of the city. Devastating, she says.

GRETCHEN WHITMER: It's hard to believe that we're in the midst of a hundred-year crisis, a global pandemic, and that we're also dealing with a flooding event that looks to be the worst in 500 years.

SAMILTON: Whitmer pledged to find out why the dams failed. The first one that failed had its license revoked in 2018 after federal regulators say it was chronically non-compliant with needed upgrades. The company, Boyce Hydro, was negotiating the sale of the dam when it failed.

WHITMER: Because this incredible damage requires that we hold people responsible, and we are pursuing and going to pursue every line of legal recourse that we can.

SAMILTON: There has been no public response from the operator of the dam. The City of Midland is the home of Dow Chemical. The company has a chemical plant alongside the river. It says floodwaters commingled with materials in containment ponds. But it says there were no releases and there's no threat to people or the environment. Brad Kaye is Midland city manager. He says, he understands - people want to head back home. Don't, he says.

BRAD KAYE: This is not over. So don't let up. Don't take it easy at this point in time. Don't think we're done and that we're past the peak because we simply are not at that point.

SAMILTON: City officials say Midland floods a lot. But it's not accustomed to dams failing. Anne Jefferson is a hydrologist at Kent State University. She says the two dams that failed are nearly 100 years old. Moreover...

ANNE JEFFERSON: Our infrastructure was designed for a past climate. And we know that climate has changed and climate is continuing to change. And that means these more intense rainfalls and wetter conditions overall are things that our infrastructure wasn't designed for.

SAMILTON: City officials say they can't predict when the floodwaters will recede. It will be a hard homecoming for many, though, dealing with a disaster within a disaster.

For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CALM BLUE SEA'S "NOW THOSE ASHES ARE AT THE BOTTOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.