MIDLAND, Mich.—May 23, 2020—Parts of Midland County, Michigan are under water after two catastrophic dam failures on the Tittabawassee River. As water pours downstream, officials expect the Michigan flood to reach an historic high-water mark with some areas facing as much as nine feet of flooding, according to NPR. Thousands of residents were evacuated as floodwaters submerged vehicles and reached the first-floor windows of homes.

The flooding also closed roads and collapsed a bridge in Midland. Thousands of residents lost power. NPR reports that Dow Chemical, headquartered in Midland, activated emergency response plans after floodwaters began comingling with containment ponds, though the company states this does not pose any immediate threat to residents or the environment.

The Edenville and Sanford dams failed after torrential rain earlier in the week caused the river to rise. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the state will be investigating the dam operators and will pursue legal action if warranted, according to NPR.

Michigan flood

This side-by-side image shows normal water levels on the left and the muddy floodwaters on the right. Image courtesy of NASA.

The damage to buildings, homes, and infrastructure from the Michigan flood is disastrous. Following an aerial tour of the area, Gov. Whitmer gave a briefing from Midland High School to assess the damage: “What I can tell you is what you already know, you’ve seen from the pictures — it’s devastating,” Whitmer said.

The last major flood in Midland took place 34 years ago. Midland City Manager Brad Kaye told NPR this one will be worse. “The 1986 flood that most people remember, that were here at least, or if you weren’t here, you certainly heard about it, was a 100-year flood,” Kaye said. “What we’re looking at is an event that is the equivalent of a 500-year flood.”

The city of Midland alone evacuated 10,000 residents and the patients in the city’s hospital, according to NPR, and evacuations also occurred in Sanford, Edenville, and other communities. As residents crowd into emergency shelters, the crisis takes on a dual nature with officials facing both the damages and threat to safety of the flood as well as the public health crisis of COVID-19. Michigan is already one of the nation’s hardest-hit states with more than 50,000 cases, and large-scale evacuations and crowded emergency shelters complicate efforts to maintain physical distance and stop the spread of the virus.

In a briefing, Gov. Whitmer encouraged residents to continue to “observe best practices to help one another, and to wear our masks and continue to try to social distance in this moment.” Concerns about infection control, contaminated environments, and social distancing restrictions will also likely complicate the restoration and recovery process for workers responding to this water damage event.