Jimmy Sue Caldwell and her husband Thomas remember Aug. 11, 2014 all too well.
The longtime Detroit residents were home on Ward Street. Outside, a once-in-a-lifetime storm was lashing their northwest neighborhood with rain for hours.
“It was really bad outside, so we decided to go down stairs until it passed,” Jimmy Sue said. “That’s what we usually do when there are bad storms.”
They would soon find out this wasn’t just a bad storm. It was a historic one.
As they sat on a couch in their tidy, finished basement, Jimmy Sue felt a strange sensation on her feet. She looked down to see water covering the carpeted floor and rising fast. They retreated up the stairs, but within minutes the murky, smelly water was almost knee deep and just about everything in the basement was saturated with the sewage-laced storm water rising through the drain.
When the storm finally passed, much of metro Detroit was under water, with more than 100,000 homes flooded in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties. Detroit, where the infrastructure is oldest and least capable of handling such a torrential rainfall, had been struck by the largest natural disaster in the United States in 2014, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and American Red Cross.
With today’s two-year anniversary, the storm is just a memory for most people.
But not in Detroit, where government at all levels has essentially moved on from the poorest of flood victims.
According to disaster relief agencies, from volunteer groups to the American Red Cross, thousands of mostly lower-income Detroiters, including those not previously counted by the government still live in damaged homes, with families exposed to toxic molds that can cause asthma and chronic disease. Some have now gone through two winters without working furnaces or water heater tanks.
Two years later, there are flood-damaged homes that haven’t even been visited by government agencies or relief organizations. In some cases, it’s because the people living there were renters, not homeowners. In others, FEMA staff said they were told by the state to avoid walking Detroit’s streets because the city was too dangerous for door-to-door canvassing.
Relief agencies told Bridge that still other families received only a portion of the disaster funds needed to repair flood damage, and were too poor to make up the difference.
The Caldwells were fortunate their furnace and other appliances still functioned after the storm but, like many Detroiters impacted by the storm, they couldn’t afford to properly remediate their basement.
"The devastating effects of the flooding can still be seen in a number of Detroit communities," said Kimberly Burton, Regional Chief Executive Officer for the American Red Cross Michigan Region. “Sadly, the aftermath of the disaster left... ongoing challenges to many who survived the initial rains.”
The recovery process has been as murky and frustrating for many Detroit residents as the water that filled their basements. FEMA doesn’t give assistance for most basement damage. The city of Detroit helped residents apply for disaster aid but did not pitch in funds because, it says, the flooding was not the city’s fault. The state, meanwhile, says it gave $8 million two years ago.
Fortunately there have been a number of locally-based organizations that have stepped in to help. Yet for all their work, they are few and the need remains substantial.
Metro Detroit was pummeled that day by a deluge not seen in most people’s lifetime. By the time the rain subsided, 4.57 inches had fallen at Metro Airport, the second highest total ever recorded in a single day. Some areas, including Detroit, recorded more than six inches of rain in less than 12 hours which, by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) standards, is a once every 500 year storm.
Roads and major highways flooded, forcing drivers to abandon vehicles. Michigan State Police sent divers into the dirty waters that filled highway underpasses to ensure cars were unoccupied. The region’s inadequate infrastructure resulted in nearly 10 billion gallons of sewer overflows – into creeks, rivers and basements. By some estimates, the Tri-County area suffered more than $1 billion in property damages.
National attention to Detroit’s plight proved fleeting. Actor Robin Williams committed suicide that same day and, two days earlier, a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., killed a black teen, Michael Brown, triggering civil unrest that would hold the media’s attention through the fall. As a result, few outside Michigan realized the damage left in the wake of the storm.
It took Gov. Rick Snyder more than a month to ask the federal government to declare a major disaster for the three counties most impacted by the storm. State officials say the delay was due to the time needed to document the need for federal aid.
“The state of Michigan had to make a case to the federal government that presidential disaster declaration assistance was needed due to local and state resources being overwhelmed,” said Ron Leix, public information officer for the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division of the Michigan State Police.
“With up to 4 million residents affected in southeast Michigan — which encompasses Oakland, Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties — and limited resources available to directly address uninsured private property damages, a thorough damage assessment was needed to make a case to FEMA and President Obama that federal assistance was required to help communities and individuals recover from the flooding disaster.
“Basement flooding is generally not covered by insurance policies unless there is a rider on the policy,” Leix added.
After receiving the formal request, President Obama declared a disaster, allowing storm victims to seek federal assistance from FEMA. Over the next couple months, FEMA received more than 130,000 applications for disaster assistance in the three counties.
As of July 15, the federal agency reported it had approved a little more than half of those requests, a total of 73,411, doling out around $300 million in federal assistance through various programs. That’s an average payment of over $4,000, but in many cases the awards were just a couple hundred dollars, according to local disaster aid organizations.
For the Caldwells and many of their neighbors, the federal aid didn’t come close to covering the costs of cleaning up the mess that was left behind.
Carmen Middleton, who lives across the street from the Caldwells on Ward Street, said her basement was flooded with about 18 inches of water, destroying carpet, walls, furniture and just about everything else. She said FEMA awarded her $600.
“That’s what I had to pay just to get the water out of the basement,” said Middleton, noting it was the first time her basement had flooded in the 37 years she has lived there.
According to FEMA officials, floodwater or sewer backup damages in recreation rooms, unoccupied basements or storage spaces generally do not qualify for FEMA assistance. However, disaster-related damages to a home’s mechanical components or those in areas that meet the federal definition of essential living space — regardless of the location in the home — may be considered eligible.
A 2015 report by the U.S. Office of Inspector General concluded that FEMA “responded effectively” to the storm ‒ especially in coordinating with state and local officials.
But it also noted a striking limitation.
The report said FEMA was warned by state officials not to allow its disaster teams to conduct its typical “door-to-door” canvassing when in Detroit to sign up residents who qualified for federal aid. “FEMA’s most pressing challenges,” the report said, “included protecting its disaster assistance personnel from harm while reaching out to citizens in Detroit’s diverse communities.”
Citing Detroit’s high rate of violent crime in 2011 and 2012, the report said state officials “were concerned for their (the FEMA’s disaster teams’) safety.”
The report does not say how FEMA was able to determine the number of damaged homes in Detroit without door-to-door visits, or if the agency relied on what homes looked like as they drove by to determine if there may be water damage inside.
Asked about the report, Leix, the spokesperson for the state’s emergency management office, acknowledged Wednesday that his office warned FEMA to avoid door-to-door interviews in Detroit. But Leix added that the state's safety warning was for the entire region, not just Detroit, contrary to what the report said.
“We took a blanket approach in this situation. There was no door-to-door canvassing. That includes every municipality, every county impacted by the flooding – not just in Detroit,” Leix said. “Most of the FEMA personnel were reservists who came in from all over the country. Most of them were not familiar with the area. Safety was our priority. We recommended that the federal government move forward on a plan that would ensure the safety of everyone. One person injured or harmed would have been one too many.”
Leix said there were a couple of “incidents” during FEMA’s subsequent investigation of flood damage, including one instance that involved a firearm.
Outside of the limited help Detroiters say they received from FEMA, homeowners like Middleton and the Caldwells didn’t know where else to turn. The City of Detroit, which was in the midst of its historic bankruptcy, helped set up three Disaster Survival Assistance Centers, where they worked with residents to apply for federal aid. But the city did not pitch in funds to help residents.
Bryan Peckinpaugh, public affairs manager at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, said the city wasn’t legally responsible for the basement backups because they were not the result of a malfunction in the system. The storm was beyond the system’s capacity.
“Typically if there was a failure of the system, residents might be able to make claims with the city. But in this case, the system was overwhelmed. That means, under state law, the city is not responsible to reimburse residents for their damages,” Peckinpaugh said.
As for Michigan, Leix, of the state emergency management office, said in the immediate aftermath of the storm the State Emergency Operations Center was activated and resources were provided to local communities. He noted though that in Michigan emergencies and disasters are administered by local governments. As for financial aid, Leix said the state contributed money in conjunction with the federal aid.
“As a part of the presidential declaration, the state of Michigan split some of the assistance costs with the federal government," Leix said. "In the ‘Other Needs Assistance’ provision of the Individuals and Households Program, the state of Michigan contributed nearly $8 million of the $32 million in assistance provided to southeast Michigan disaster survivors as a part of a 75-percent federal and 25-percent state cost sharing agreement."
The grants, he said, covered uninsured, disaster‐related necessary expenses and serious needs, including damage to clothing, vehicles, household furnishings and appliances, education materials, clean-up machinery and moving costs.
It simply wasn’t enough in Detroit, the nation’s poorest big city.
In stepped organizations known for disaster response management, including the American Red Cross, and a variety of faith-based groups.
The United Methodist Committee On Relief (UMCOR) the nonprofit, global disaster relief arm of the United Methodist Church, initiated the Northwest Detroit Flood Recovery Project (NwDFRP) in April 2015. From it’s base at Second Grace United Methodist Church on Joy Road in Detroit, the group offers comprehensive disaster case management services and is works with others “to address survivors' physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.”
As the name suggests, the group is focused on the northwest section of the city – the area west of Woodward and north of Warren Road, and where there were more than 44,000 damage claims submitted to FEMA after the flooding, according to Rebecca Wilson, the project coordinator.
“Detroit had never seen a disaster like this, and just wasn’t prepared,” Wilson said. “The United Methodist Church wasn’t prepared, either. We had dealt with small tornadoes, but nothing like this. This was the largest natural disaster of 2014 and nobody was prepared for what that meant.
“And then you throw on top of that the political climate of these three counties. We don’t collaborate on much of anything, so why would we collaborate on a flood?”
Wilson said the number of people in northwest Detroit still living in homes with damaged basements is staggering. One of the biggest challenges for the group – and there are many – is finding unknown victims who are still out there.
“We still hear from people every day,” she said. “On a slow day, we still get three or four calls from people we haven’t heard from before. On busy days, we can get 10 calls.”
Wilson’s skeletal team includes managers Cheryl Tipton and Linda Staley, and an office intern. The project is funded primarily by UMCOR, which pays for disaster relief around the globe.
NwDFRP team members say they have visited nearly 500 homes. During interviews, they assess the damage, determine what needs the people still have, and find out if they applied for FEMA assistance. If they were denied, they look for reasons to appeal the decision. Unfortunately, the group can only help homeowners not renters – and they must be current on their property taxes. They say they want to ensure limited resources go to people who will actually benefit from them.
To date, the group has assigned case managers to about 200 homes where they offer direct assistance, which often means “mucking out” basements.
“We still have people with wet basements – wet furniture, wet carpet, the walls are full of mold,” Wilson said. “Two years later, that mold is up the basement ceiling, so it’s all got to come out.”
Those molds can be dangerous and even toxic, dramatically increasing the risk of allergies and asthma. Carmen Middleton’s situation is a perfect example. When NwDFRP managers visited, they found yellow, black and white mold throughout the basement.
“I had no idea that there was mold in the house,” said Middleton, a retiree on a fixed income. “I was having really bad allergies, sneezing and coughing all the time. And I couldn’t sleep at night. I thought it was just my sinuses. After they started doing the work down there, I have been so much better. I can sleep again.”
Dressed in HAZMAT suits, volunteers working for the NwDFRP rip out wet carpet, moldy walls, and whatever else remains in the basements. Rarely is there anything salvageable. They then disinfect and drylock the foundation walls, rebuild interior walls (if there had been any), fix tile work, then paint. They hire local contractors to repair plumbing or electrical damage, replace furnaces or remove asbestos tiles.
“Our case managers work with the homeowners to see if they qualify for any funding from other sources, but most people don’t qualify for anything else. That’s when we dip into our pot of money for direct assistance (that is provided by UMCOR). We call it our pot of last resort,” said Wilson. “We’re really focused on finding the people who do not have the money to pay for this stuff themselves.”
As of mid-July, they still had about 70 open cases that need muck-outs or are in various states of repair. That number rises daily.
“The actual number of people who still need help, I don’t even know how to guess. I have no hesitation saying it’s in the thousands,” Wilson said.
Fortunately for NwDFRP and the Mennonite Disaster Service, which runs a similar but smaller assistance operation in the Osborn neighborhood on the city’s eastside, most of the labor is by volunteers from all over the country. As a result, there is usually no direct cost for the muck-outs.
But the relief agencies spend funds for new furnaces, boilers, water heater tanks and construction materials needed to rebuild basements. They say they are getting the materials at cost from local dealers, and a number of contractors do plumbing, electrical and heating work fairly cheap.
“Typically our costs run from several hundred dollars up to several thousand dollars for each home. It just depends on how bad the damage is,” Wilson said. “If furnaces need to be replaced, the cost goes up significantly.”
One of the positive aspects of the damage has been the mix of people working to help flood victims.
“At a time when the world is so crazy, we work with so many different groups,” Wilson said. “We work with Jewish groups, Muslim groups, Christian groups. On any given day, we’ll have four or five different groups from faith or non-faith backgrounds working together.”
Among them is NECHAMA from Minnesota, a Jewish nonprofit that responds to natural disasters across the country. It was one of the first to respond in Detroit, arriving within 24 hours. Its volunteers spent the next six months mucking out about 300 homes.
“When the storm hit in 2014, there was so much going on in the news that was taking attention away from what was happening here in Detroit,” said Mark McGilvery, field operations specialist with NECHAMA. “But it was apparent pretty immediately to us that there was a massive need here. Our typical response is three to six weeks. We were here for almost seven months, and could have stayed much longer. We just couldn’t get to the houses fast enough ‒ and we were working around the clock.”
Since the initial response, NECHAMA volunteers have been back twice, most recently this July with a group of 30, doing muck-outs and restoring basements for the Northwest Detroit Flood Recovery Project.
“People often ask me why we keep going back to Detroit two years later. But people just don’t understand the magnitude of what is going on here,” McGilvery said. “It’s gut wrenching to see. There are people who will live and die by what happened with that storm. That’s the reality. And most people don’t even realize it.”
Recovery for some
Volunteers say the hard work is worth it when they see the expressions of joy from the people they’ve helped. People like Regina Manuel. She has lived in the same home on Hubbell Street for 50 years. Like many, she used her basement as living space. She even had a play room set up for her grandchildren. After the flooding, it had been off limits for nearly two years.
Volunteers recently completed restoration in the basement, and she said it looks “brand new.”
“This has been such a blessing for me and my family. My grandchildren can go down there again. It’s like a whole new home,” Manuel said.
Far too many Detroiters, however, aren’t as fortunate as Manuel because they don’t know where to turn. And, unfortunately, one of the only places – the Northwest Detroit Flood Recovery Project – may not be around much longer. According to Wilson, its UMCOR funding is set to expire at year’s end, with so much still to do.
“Typically, the three year mark is the worst for flood survivors,” she said. “That’s when the suicide rates go up. Because after three years of dealing with this, they’re depressed and just overwhelmed. So, as we approach the two year anniversary, we are really trying to reach as many people as we can that need help.”
Fortunately for Jimmy Sue and Thomas Caldwell, NwDFRP reached them. Volunteers mucked out and gutted their basement in July and were expected to be done with the rebuild well in advance of the two-year anniversary.
“I’m just excited we will be able to use our basement again,” said Jimmy Sue, as she watched volunteers carry sheets of drywall a few weeks back. “It feels like I’m getting my house back.”
Kurt Kuban is a longtime journalist who focuses on environmental issues. He is editor of the Community Publishing group.