Thousands evacuated as river dams break in central Michigan

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A rain-swollen river has breached two dams and flooded fields and streets in parts of mid-Michigan, forcing evacuation orders for thousands amid a coronavirus pandemic that’s posing safety challenges for officials trying to provide shelter.

Parts of the city of Midland and surrounding areas were virtual lakes Wednesday morning, and it could get worse. Downtown in Midland, a city of about 41,000 people downstream of the dams, could eventually be “under approximately 9 feet of water,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said.

“This is a particularly dangerous situation. Seek higher ground now!” the National Weather Service said in a flash-flood warning statement.

Midland is home to Dow Chemical Co.’s headquarters and manufacturing complex. The company said Wednesday its facilities were safely shut down, except for those needed to manage chemical containment.

Water breached the Edenville and Sanford dams — which normally contain the Tittabawassee River to create two separate lakes — north of Midland on Tuesday evening after days of heavy rain.

By Wednesday morning, water — waist-deep in places near Sanford, video from CNN affiliate WDIV shows — was lapping up against businesses and homes around the county.

Evacuation orders are in effect for about 3,500 homes and 10,000 people, Mark Bone, chairman of the Midland County Board of Commissioners, said he believes.

In Midland, about 150 residents of the Riverside Place senior residence — many with walkers or riding in wheelchairs — were among those who evacuated, CNN affiliate WJRT reported.

The scene wasn’t easy to watch, said Toni Mclennan, a maintenance technician who checked the complex to make sure everyone was out.

Mclennan felt “sadness” and “the hope that they come back,” she told the station. “I mean, especially with this pandemic and you’re getting people in close quarters, it’s probably that much more scary.”

With the coronavirus pandemic months underway, officials in the county are juggling two public safety crises at once.The flood disaster is one of the first to test how local, state and federal response efforts can handle the dual challenge.

At least five shelters are running in the Midland area — at schools and family centers — and flood evacuees are being screened for the illness, officials say.

The governor declared an emergency for the flooding, and said previous orders relating to the coronavirus crisis are locally suspended if they impede emergency responses for the flooding.

Though Wednesday is sunny and rain is not expected to resume for days, the river still was rising in Midland — and by Wednesday morning was already past the previous record of 33.89 feet. That was set during a major flood in the city in 1986.

At that height alone, the river will be flooding many homes, according to the National Weather Service. The river could crest at 38 feet Wednesday evening, according to the weather service.

Officials are giving health screenings and distributing masks at shelters

No deaths or injuries have been reported, said Midland spokeswoman Selina Crosby Tisdale.

At the shelters, workers are checking evacuees’ temperatures and handing out masks to them because of the pandemic, Tisdale said.

Workers also are trying to space out the evacuees throughout the shelters, hoping to reduce the chances that anyone who might be carrying the virus spreads it to others.

Evacuees should expect to stay away from their homes for days, Tisdale said.”We’re still waiting to crest, and then we have to wait for water levels to recede. It’s going to take days until we get to that point.”

About 100 Michigan National Guard members are helping with evacuations, Capt. Andrew Layton said.

Police tell residents to flee over loudspeakers

Midland resident Jamie Broderick evacuated from her home overnight with family and guests after a harrowing warning.

By 11 p.m. Tuesday, with no evacuation ordered for her area, Broderick’s family of five was hosting her parents and some friends, who were in an evacuation zone. Then, sitting on a couch, she thought she heard “evacuation” from a police vehicle’s loudspeaker outside.

“It was very surreal, like out of a movie,” she said.

She ran outside barefoot and tried to flag them down. She missed them, but a friend five doors down called and confirmed what she heard: They said to evacuate.

Broderick caught up with the police car. A state trooper told her people in that neighborhood needed to leave. Though the Sanford Dam was breached, it was largely intact. But if it fell away completely, her neighborhood could be deluged, the trooper said.

The mother of three boys rushed back home and got everyone moving. After packing some essentials — clothes, food, and toys and diapers — they all drove two hours west to her parents’ lake house, where they were awaiting word of their homes Wednesday morning.

Broderick, a real estate agent, said many people in Midland don’t have flood insurance, because though the river flows through it, the city is generally far from the lakes.

“People don’t have the financial capacity to rebuild” if the city gets flooded badly, she said. “I imagine many families would have to move out.”

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