500-year flood event causes devastation in Midland County

Whitmer asking FEMA for support for flood victims

By: - May 20, 2020 3:29 pm
Flooding in Edenville

View from Curtis Road bridge in Edenville | C.J. Postal of Saginaw

City and state officials are calling flooding and failures of two dams on the Tittabawassee River in Midland County a 500-year event.  

Whitmer issued a state of emergency in the area Tuesday night.


The Tittabawassee River reached a record level of 35 feet Wednesday afternoon, according to a tweet from the National Weather Service (NWS) in Detroit. It’s expected to crest, or reach its highest level during a flood, at 38 feet Wednesday night.

That is more than 4 feet above the previous flood record set in 1986.

“I just finished an aerial tour of the impacted areas,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer during a news conference Wednesday in Midland. “It’s devastating.”

Michigan State Police have been helping the city monitor flooding, but the current condition of the Sanford dam is unknown because it’s underwater.

“If the dam fails completely, it will send a higher surge of water into the city,” said Midland City Manager Brad Kaye.

Dow Chemical Company, located near the bank of the Tittabawassee River, reported that flood water began mixing with its on-site containment ponds around 10 a.m. Wednesday and that the company has partnered with the U.S. Coast Guard to activate emergency plans.

Aerial shot of the Sanford dam failure
An aerial view of the Sanford dam failure (Photo Credit: Martin Szeliga of Pinconning, MI)

As the scale of flood damage becomes clearer, Whitmer said her administration will investigate why the dams failed and who was responsible.

“It was well-known that there were problems [with the dams] for a while,” said Whitmer. “This incredible amount of damage requires us to hold people responsible. We are going to pursue every line of legal recourse that we can.” 

Whitmer said she’s been in talks with the federal government and that she’ll formally ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for its support to help flood victims.

“I am going to be very aggressive about getting help from our federal partners,” said Whitmer.

About 130 soldiers from Michigan National Guard units in Bay City, Saginaw and Port Huron were called into the Midland area around 4 a.m. Wednesday to evacuate residents, and 200 more are expected.

More than 20 conservation officers from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) also helped with the evacuations.

Whitmer added she was pleased to see a large-scale evacuation operation go as well as it did.

“At this point, there have been no reports of casualties,” said Whitmer. “That’s a pretty amazing thing.”

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Madeline Ciak
Madeline Ciak

Madeline Ciak is a former Michigan Advance reporter. She’s a University of Michigan-Flint graduate and previously worked as a digital media manager at NBC25/FOX66 in Flint and a weekend producer at ABC12.