In May, the failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams near Midland—resulting from negligence and ineffective regulation—threatened to wash away more than just buildings.
Story by Anna Clark
Photos by Ben Tierney
On the afternoon of May 19, Miriam Andrus, director of the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library in Midland, Michigan, went back to the shuttered library for the first time in months. The statewide shutdown for the coronavirus pandemic forced the facility to close its doors, while Andrus and other staff members worked from home. But that day, a clanging text alert at 12:22 a.m. had warned that nearby dams were at risk of failing. It had been raining heavily. “The whole community was on edge,” Andrus said.
So, she went to the library to check in on the small creek out back. Andrus is no novice when it comes to floods—every home she’s owned has filled with water at some point, and, in 1976, her hometown in Idaho was utterly devastated by a dam break that is considered the worst manmade disaster in state history. In Midland, the rising creek behind the library made her nervous. She called in a few supervisors to help her move furniture away from the walls, just in case water would come in through the windows. They also emptied the bottom shelf books from the library’s lower level, where the youth collection is held.
Then, just before 6 p.m., the Edenville Dam, which sits upstream from Midland at the meeting place of the Tittabawasee and Tobacco rivers, cracked open, unleashing a rush of water that surged miles downriver, where it overran and damaged the Sanford Dam. Three hours later came the order to leave town entirely. “Please get somewhere safe now,” Governor Gretchen Whitmer said at a press conference.
Andrus decided to stay. Her husband and kids evacuated to a friend’s house, but she camped out at the library in a room with floor-to-ceiling windows, to keep watch overnight. “That’s when I knew it was going to be bad,” said Teresa Ahlers, the supervisor of adult services.
The hours ticked by, well past midnight. Andrus stepped outside again and again to check on the rising water, snapping photos to mark its spread across the lawn. This was trouble, she thought. She called several supervisors very late, waking them, and asked them to return. Together, they made a futile effort to redirect the water with sandbags before focusing on a rescue effort. The elevators were useless; when they called one up to the first floor, they could hear a waterfall pouring through the chute. In the dark of night, as the clock ticked past three, four women climbed up and down the stairs, carrying armfuls of books, toys, games, chairs, office supplies, paper boxes after paper boxes. One step, then another, then another. Water swirled at their feet.
In time, the water rose eleven inches above the base of the lower windows. It came in first through the seals, and eventually through the brick walls. The library was built of four layers of brick, sturdy enough that it was difficult to get a cell phone signal inside. But later surveys found the flood damage was so immense that it pulled two layers of brick away from the building, bowing a thirty-foot wall of the children’s story area in the days after the deluge. “It looked like an earthquake,” Ahlers said.
Midland is home to forty-two thousand residents, and the headquarters of Dow Chemical Company, one of the largest chemical manufacturers in the world. (Midland High School’s mascot: the Chemics.) When the dams failed, the Tittabawassee River rose thirty-four feet, six feet above the marker for “major flooding.” It totally emptied Wixom Lake, inundating neighboring communities. Some fifty homes were destroyed, 1,647 damaged, and 642 otherwise affected. Few had flood insurance. The torrent ravaged sewage systems and displaced about ten thousand people across Midland, Gladwin, and Saginaw counties. It also left behind miles upon miles of mud and debris.
The Midland flood was an unnatural disaster. The failure of the dams was the end result of years of deferred maintenance, negligence, and federal and state regulation unable to prevent a life-changing deluge. It threatened public safety, homes, senior residences, schools, and businesses, all of which were already vulnerable from the coronavirus pandemic. An early makeshift shelter at Midland High School tried to practice social distancing while also meeting the essential needs of residents. Cots were spaced at least six feet apart. Everyone wore masks. At least sixty-five with COVID-19 symptoms were not allowed in. They were redirected to hotel rooms.
Cultural institutions also took a hit—the libraries, museums, and archives that are entrusted with community memory. Like the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, they’re now fighting to rescue damaged artifacts, books, and buildings. “We’re normally the keepers of the stories,” said Julie Johnson, who, through the Midland Center for the Arts, directs the local museum of science and art and the county historical society. “It was kind of surreal…we are the history-in-the-making right now, and yet we are the keepers of it.”
The Edenville Dam, built ninety-six years ago, spanned sixty-six hundred feet—a length equivalent to about four Sears Towers (or Willis Towers, if you must) plunked on their side and laid end to end. The dam had two spillways to manage water flow. The Sanford Dam also dates back to the 1920s. The private company that owns both dams, plus two others nearby, is called Boyce Hydro Power LLC. Two men at Boyce Hydro—one a Las Vegas architect, the other a California musician—decided in 2006 to buy them for $4.8 million. They had sold property in another state and wanted to use the dams as a tax shelter.
More than fifty-six percent of dams across the United States have private owners, and, according to an AP report from last November, at least 1,680 are in risky condition. That the Edenville Dam was one of them was no secret. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) had hounded its owners (both current and previous) for decades about its condition. “Of particular concern is the project’s inability to pass the Probable Maximum Flood due to inadequate spillway capacity,” FERC commissioners noted in 2017. In a compliance order, the commissioners wrote that Boyce Hydro’s “disregard for the severity of this situation is appalling.”
The recommended fixes—including the expansion of spillway capacity to withstand major floods—were never made. The attorney for one of the owners, Lee Mueller, told Bridge Michigan that his client wanted to make repairs but couldn’t afford them. He has also suggested that federal standards are out of date, prompting FERC to get “obsessed” over the wrong problems. Regulators had few tools to interrupt the pattern of neglect, even as it worsened by the day.
Meanwhile, Mueller had a tense relationship with people who lived on the lakes created by the dams. At one point, he pleaded no contest to ramming his vehicle into a pickup truck full of passengers several times. (The truck was parked on the dam’s property, and the passengers intended to fish in the lake; Mueller said he was concerned he would be prevented from leaving.) About a year later, he pleaded no contest to using a chain to smash the windows of cars parked (legally) on the road near the dam. Mueller, who was in his early seventies, spent five days in jail for the latter offense.
There were also battles around a public recreation area Boyce Hydro was supposed to build as part of its licensing deal, but never did, and unpaid property taxes that led to a foreclosure on the bottomlands of the lake created by the Sanford Dam. It led to years of litigation.
In September 2018, Boyce Hydro lost its license to generate hydropower from the Edenville Dam. In revoking the license, FERC cited the “longstanding failure to increase the project’s spillway capacity to safely pass flood flows, as well as its failure to comply with its license, the Commission’s regulations, and a June 15, 2017, Compliance Order.” Regulators had “attempted to ensure the licensee corrected noncompliance issues at this project since Boyce Hydro’s acquisition of the license in 2004—a period of over 14 years.” FERC also again emphasized that the spillways were deficient, since they could only pass fifty percent of a Probable Maximum Flood.
According to Bridge, Boyce Hydro argued in court papers that suspending the company’s ability to use water to generate hydroelectric power was in fact increasing the risk of flooding. Mueller has also argued that people who live on property near the lake should pay for the dam repairs. If they didn’t, he said, he would drain the lake.
State regulators took up oversight of the Edenville Dam when FERC revoked the license. But these evaluators took a different tack. After the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) inspected the dam in October 2018, it described its condition as “fair.” Where EGLE did take enforcement action, it focused on different problems. For example, it challenged Boyce Hydro for drawing down water levels in the lake created by the dam without permission, which killed thousands of freshwater mussels. Boyce Hydro and the state filed lawsuits against each other this spring about drawdown.
The whole thing was a mess. People in Gladwin and Midland counties were looking for a way to take control of their infrastructure. They created the Four Lakes Task Force, which would be supported by a $350 special assessment slated to start in 2021 for lakefront property owners, and $88 for those with nearby property. In January, the task force signed a $9.4 million deal to buy the dams and the lakes they created. The money was to be held in escrow until repairs and upgrades were made.
With permission from the state, the task force drew down water levels in the dam reservoirs this past winter, partly to do spillway repairs. But in April, it began raising the levels back up, deepening the twenty-six-hundred-acre reservoir by eight feet, even as water across Michigan was already unusually high. The increase was completed on May 3, ready for a season of fishing and swimming.
Sixteen days later, the dam broke. Water turned small towns into lakes, pushed thousands upon thousands out of their homes, and prompted a library director to stand watch in a large, windowed room as the waters rose.
Michigan was hit hard and early by the coronavirus, and its museums and historical sites were not immune. Even so, like the librarians, the historians thought they could prepare enough to take on the flood. “We knew the water was going to rise, but didn’t know how high,” said Julie Johnson, the director of museums. “So we made preparations to protect everything that we could.” Museum leaders went by the high-water level of the so-called “hundred-year flood” in 1986—nearly twenty-five feet. “And then, guess what?” Johnson said. “It went over that level.”
Altogether, “it was a horrible week, an exhausting month,” Johnson said. “It was horrible scouring all of the footage [of the high floodwaters] on the internet and on TV and news channels, on things my sister from Grand Rapids saw on Grand Rapids news—it was actually a newscaster on a boat going past the Doan Center, and I saw where the water was. And then I started looking more for information and drone footage and saw that it was real.”
The cost to restore the Midland Center for the Arts: about $10 million. That includes damages to its research facility, where the permanent gallery is housed. The building where historical archives and collections are stored—books, papers, furniture, clothing, dolls, and quilts—was beat up, too. About fifteen to twenty percent of materials were lost or damaged.
While the flood was the result of decades of failures in maintaining and regulating the dams, the burden of cleaning up now falls on community members. The work is especially sensitive for those charged with protecting irreplaceable historical items. “Anyone who works with museum collections is highly aware of there being a way to do it well and a way to do it badly,” said Lisa Craig Brisson, executive director of the Michigan Museums Association.
Collaboration has proved essential. “We were bombarded by messages from members” who wanted to help out, Brisson said. On Memorial Day weekend, a couple hundred volunteers and museum professional from around the state moved items out from buildings that were prone to mold and mildew. One helper in particular stood out—a firefighter who happened to be trained in emergency response at heritage sites.
Wet items, including court records and marriage licenses, were put in freezers at places like Saginaw Valley State University and the Grand Rapids Public Museum for freeze-drying, a multi-stage process that gives them a better chance of survival. The entire dry paperwork archives were boxed up and carried elsewhere. For some items, an especially secure location needed to be found. For others, like statues, mailboxes, and bookcases, an especially large one. Every item needed to have its condition logged and its location tracked.
Social distancing during a pandemic doesn’t reconcile easily with flood recovery. But museum officials made an effort: people wore gloves and masks; volunteers worked in shifts. In addition to the virus, they had to take precautions around lingering floodwaters. The 1874 Bradley Home and Carriage House, managed by the historical society, was cleaned up as much as possible after being fairly well drowned; the carriage house had filled with about five feet of water, while water in the Bradley basement was so high, it seeped through the first floor.
The Sanford Centennial Museum is another beloved local institution that suffered dearly, with up to three feet of water at its historic sites. Unlike the Midland library or museums, this one is staffed entirely by volunteers. A GoFundMe campaign asks for recovery support, including the restoration of maple flooring on a flooded schoolhouse. (A second GoFundMe is crowdfunding for historic sites in both Sanford and Midland.)
Brisson, from the museum association, notes that both the flooding and the pandemic are revealing inequities between staffed and volunteer museums that have been here all along. With less institutional supports, “I worry about Sanford more than Midland,” she said.
At the Grace A. Dow Memorial library, the parks departments showed up the next day to help , hauling in a tremendous amount of dirt to build, of all things, an earthen dam on the library lawn. “We were really worried one of the windows would break,”Andrus, the director, said. “If a window broke, we would have ended up with eight feet of water in the basement and lost our whole collection.”A Japanese garden behind the library, a marker of the community’s sister city of Handa, “had to be dirted over,” Andrus said, which killed a Japanese maple, but it was pivotal in keeping pressure off the windows that librarians had been lining with a dry erase marker to track water levels.
The next day, May 21, about sixty people from the National Guard turned up to help, too, and good thing they did, as everything on the lower level—eighty thousand items—needed to be removed, right down to the soggy carpet. Pumps ran nonstop. Professional cleaners had to dig in to stave off mold and general grossness that was gathering in the humid air. “It felt like a sauna,” Andrus said. “All the books were getting really wavy and taking on moisture.”
If the library had not had this assistance to clear out the lower level, Andrus estimates it would have lost two million dollars’ worth of books—not to mention the cumulative cultural and historic value of the collection. As it stands, thanks to the rescue effort, only few thousand dollars-worth were ruined, some by water and some by humidity. (Nineteenth-century copies of the Midland Daily News and the Midland Republic came within centimeters of being drowned, according to Ahlers.) The library also needed to call in professionals to fix systems like climate control, which had broken down when mechanical rooms were submerged in four feet of water. The splaying brick walls will need to be disassembled and rebuilt; there’s no cost estimate yet for that.
While this is the worst flood event the area has seen, it was also uncomfortably familiar to Ahlers. In 2017, another flood had filled the lower level of the library with so much water that the wood moulding and carpet had to be removed. It caused $400,000 in damages. This time, as librarians emptied the area and struggled to reorganize the other two floors, they also had to follow COVID-era procedures for handling materials and social distancing. “The whole area is a swamp,” Ahlers said.
It will still take a great deal of money and labor to make the library building functional again. It’s not yet clear what it will cost to repair the structural damage to the brick walls, and, as Ahlers puts it, “we really won’t be able to open to the public for a good long while, much longer than other libraries.” The library lives in a beautiful building that is well-used by the community. But “honestly…we’ve talked about do we really want to be in this building if the dams come back,” Ahlers said.
The Midland flood is a problem of infrastructure. The Edenville dam had a series of private owners who didn’t make necessary repairs because they weren’t profitable. Federal and state regulators, going back more than two decades, didn’t have the muscle or clarity of supervision to make them do it. Increased rainfall has raised water levels dramatically, and the condition of the dams worsened day by day. The result: a five-hundred-year flood that was effectively human-made.
In the aftermath comes a period of reflection. The Four Lakes Task Force, which had been slated to bring the Edenville dam under community control, said in a statement that, given the dam’s catastrophic failure, “the acquisition has not and will not take place under the terms that were negotiated with Boyce Hydro this past winter.”
Meanwhile, the big museums and library have reached out to FEMA, and are applying for grants and raising funds to support their revival in a year that was difficult even before the infrastructure failed. President Donald Trump has approved it as a federal disaster area, making at least $43 million available to rebuild the community. Gov. Whitmer’s letter requesting the designation estimated more than $190 million in losses, on top of $55 million in crisis response.
With the lake gone, residents joke about how they now have a house next to “a really nice sandbox,” as Ahlers put it. The Riverside Senior Living Community was declared uninhabitable, and residents moved. A condo association voted to dissolve itself—though it has since been offered a sale by a developer who means to repair units and rent them back to former residents at seventy-five percent value. A colleague of Ahlers’ husband had just purchased a retirement home on the lake that no longer exists. He can’t live in it and he can’t sell it. “There’s his retirement money,” she said.
Many residents are leaning on stories as they navigate this uncertainty. Sanford folks, for example, are giving interviews to Sanford Voices, a program from Central Michigan University that is collecting oral histories of the disaster and the recovery. “Our task is to use our skills to make sure the voices of the families and community are preserved so that now and also 100 years from now, people can read and hear the actual words and voices of a community that was devastated and fought back,” reads a posting on the Sanford Centennial Museum’s website.
Midland’s library and museums are central to this process—creating space for shared stories, even as they live the very history that they keep. The doors to the library are shut to the public indefinitely, but curbside pickup service just became available, which the library director describes as a miracle, and a testament to how committed the staff is to doing anything that needs to be done, not just for love of the library but love of the community. “We’re open even though we had a flood and the coronavirus,” Andrus said. “We’re doing okay.” Likewise, scarcely two weeks after the deluge, the Midland Center for the Arts staged a virtual version of the annual summer art fair.
“We’re trying our best to be positive,” Johnson said. “We did everything we possibly could.” ■
Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit and the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy.
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