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Lawmakers visit Midland saying flood 'may have been prevented'


Sarah Rahal   | The Detroit News

Some Michigan lawmakers say there's a need for stricter regulations on privately owned dams to prevent other devastating floods after the dam in Midland County failed earlier this week.

U.S. Senators Gary Peters, Debbie Stabenow and U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, toured the flood-ravaged area on Saturday with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials.

After taking an aerial survey of the damage with FEMA Regional Administrator James K. Joseph, they drove through Sanford, where some impacted residents are cleaning up and holding drives for food and supplies. 

"We're going to ensure that there's no stone that's unturned," Joseph said during a news conference Saturday. "Whenever we do an assessment in any community, we're coming to validate assessments that have already taken place at the local and state level.

"It is absolutely devastating... (but) we are encouraged, and I was encouraged by the fact that you see the community really coming together," Joseph said. 

It's too soon to complete the full assessment and is still unclear when the flood water will be tested for possible contamination, Joseph said.

After being up close to the devastation, the lawmakers were united in saying "this can't happen again," and are focusing on mitigation and making investments ahead of time.

"We have to wait until there's a full investigation, but certainly it may have been prevented had we had a stronger dam there that could withstand it," Peters said. "I think we need to be looking at federal regulation when it comes to dams generally ... When we know there are those kinds of vulnerabilities, people downstream need to know the risks."

An increasing number of dams are falling to disrepair, Peters said, adding the state needs to start prioritizing vulnerable infrastructure because "every dollar we spend now will be a lot less in the future if we don't do it."

The break came after years of federal scolding over the Edenville Dam's inadequate spillway capacity, among other deficiencies, that eventually led in 2018 to the revocation of the dam's power generation license. Oversight then transferred to the state.

Four months before the Edenville Dam failed, the state discovered the 96-year-old structure didn’t even meet state standards for its capacity to withstand major flooding, according to inspector emails.

The final analysis had been expected in March, but an engineer with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) told consultants on Jan. 31 the dam was deficient even without considering the impact of waves on Wixom Lake.

The majority of state dams, including the Edenville Dam, are privately owned, said Stabenow.

"This owner slow-walked and fought federal regulators, stonewalled for years," she said. "The community was right on the edge and worked so hard to fix this. This privately owned dam could have been addressed before if the owner had stepped up to do it when he was told. This is the reason we need major investments at the state, federal level in infrastructure for the future."

Stabenow, who was born in nearby Gladwin, said "this was just another punch to the gut" for Michigan.

Moolenaar, Stabenow & Peters press conference with FEMA.

Posted by Midland County, Michigan on Saturday, May 23, 2020

"We are fighting on two fronts right now," Stabenow said. "Thank goodness we didn't lose any lives and we hope we don't going forward."

Moolenaar, R-Midland, touted FEMA's swift response and said they were able to look past the struggle to see the positive resilience. 

"We're going to come back from this but we can't do it alone," he said. "A bipartisan effort that's encouraged by the progress being made.

The meeting comes after President Donald Trump approved Governor Gretchen Whitmer's emergency declaration request on Thursday, which made FEMA resources available. Whitmer also visited Midland Wednesday and surveyed the county by helicopter.

Once the Edenville Dam breached, the Sanford Dam downstream overflowed, causing the 500-year flood Tuesday, with waters cresting at 35 feet, in central Michigan.

Water levels have declined to 20.8 feet by Saturday. Crews are opening landfills and working on cleaning the area. Officials are asking people to avoid the area and stay off roads and bridges until they can be evaluated when the water subsides.

The most important thing, for people living near high water levels, is being prepared before a flood occurs, Joseph said. 

"Look at insurance policies. It's always devastating to me after a flooding event how many people learn for the first time that their standard homeowner's insurance policy will not cover the effects of rain or floodwaters that come into their homes," Joseph said. "The more data you can provide that shows the extent of the damage, is what we really need to provide a quality assessment."

The emails, released by EGLE at the request of The Detroit News, raise new questions about why the state — with the knowledge that the dam likely failed both state and federal capacity standards — rejected the company's request to lower lake levels above the dam last fall. The state went on to sue the company this month over the death of freshwater mussels after it defied state orders and lowered lake levels.

Two lawsuits seeking class-action status over the dam failure were filed Friday, with one suit focusing on the dam’s owners and managers, and another encompassing the dam owners, its manager and the state of Michigan. 

Both lawsuits seeking upwards of $5 million in damages were filed in the federal district court in Detroit and are believed to be the first litigation related to the dam failure. 

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_