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Midland failed dams, floods caused $200M in damages to 2,500 buildings

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Monday she’s seeking a federal major disaster declaration from President Donald Trump to help recoup some $200 million in damages to more than 2,500 buildings from floods last month caused when two dams failed.

“Getting back to normal is going to be a Herculean undertaking, but with the federal government's help we can get it done and we will,” Whitmer said, adding the flooding in Midland County and nearby communities was “unlike anything we've seen in 500 years.”

A major disaster declaration would unlock more aid from the federal government, including financial assistance for victims and help with debris removal and rebuilding buildings and infrastructure damaged in the flood. 

That would go beyond the scope of an emergency declaration, which Trump approved for the area on May 21 and can provide up to $5 million in help. 

The damage estimates were disclosed for the first time Monday as a part of Midland County’s preliminary assessment, which also found that only 8 percent of damaged homes had flood insurance, 150 homes were destroyed, 790 had major damage and public property such as schools and government buildings had $34 million in damages.

Most of the people whose homes were damaged by waters weren’t in a flood zone, Midland County Commission Chair Mark Bone said.

“We're ready to go,” Bone said. “We're still mourning a little bit but we're ready to go forward. So now it's up to rebuilding this community, which I firmly believe we will.”

Whitmer said ensuring access to clean water is a top priority and “will have to be part of our [federal] assistance.” Some residents have raised concerns that Midland-area drinking water may be contaminated with bacteria from sewage systems or from potential chemical contamination due to flooding nearby Dow Chemical’s facilities. 

The damage followed heavy rains on May 19 that caused water from Wixom Lake to punch a hole through the Edenville Dam’s earthen embankment, unleashing a torrent of water that caused the downstream Sanford Dam to overflow. 

Some 10,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes in Midland, Gladwin and Saginaw counties. 

As Bridge first reported, by the time it broke, the Edenville Dam had been cited for non-compliance with safety regulations for decades. Federal regulators revoked the dam owner’s license to generate hydroelectric power in 2018 after years of missed deadlines, which moved regulatory oversight to the state. 

State regulators in the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) deemed it safe in an initial inspection and did not demand measures to improve public safety in the year and a half leading up to the dam break. 

Whitmer said she’s “inclined to say” she would support rebuilding the Edenville and Sanford dams that failed during the storm, but she couldn’t say for certain without “a lot more information.” 

Whitmer has launched an investigation into the dams’ failure, while a U.S. House committee also has requested information from both state and federal regulators.

To the chagrin of many residents, Republicans and industry experts, Whitmer has ordered state regulators to conduct the investigation, even though they oversaw the dam. 

On Monday, Whitmer said EGLE is best suited to lead the probe because it’s “going to take a certain level of expertise” to determine what caused the dam failure.

She added Monday that the agency will be working with “some independent investigators” as well, but declined to identify them, saying “that’s all getting fleshed out right now.”

EGLE officials also claimed the probe would include “an independent third-party investigation” in a press release last week. 

Asked by Bridge who the third-party investigator is, a spokesperson for the department said the federal regulatory agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, will be looking into the Sanford Dam while the state looks into Edenville. 

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