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Now Detroit is flooded with calls for help and repairs

a flooded interstate 94 with a submerged vehicle
Russ McNamara

The flood waters that filled basements and streets in Detroit on Saturday are being characterized as a 500-year event in preliminary findings by the city, meaning there’s only a half percent chance it will occur in any given year.

“We are becoming more and more aware of all of the issues associated with climate change and how rapidly these storms develop and turn into extreme events,” Palencia Mobley, the deputy director and chief engineer of the Detroit Department of Water and Sewerage told city council members during a virtual meeting on Tuesday. 

She said her department has been in conversations with the Michigan Department of Transportation to consider strategies that would mitigate the flooding that left stretches of I-94 closed as well as with the Great Lakes Water Authority regarding plans to redesign pumping systems to withstand higher levels of rainfall.  

Pump failure

Department Director Gary Brown attributed the flooding this weekend to intense rain that fell during a short time period as well as a two hour power outage at the Conner Creek pumping station on Saturday. He said an independent organization would look into the cause of the outage. An investigation in 2016 found that the pumps at that same station failed. 

“We did an investigation and [found that] the pumps failed,” Brown said. “They couldn't get them started. And since then, $30 million has been invested into the Conner Creek pumping station to rebuild those pumps.” 

Brown said the pumps were in working order until the power outage. “As soon as the power was restored, the pumps immediately started pulling the water off of streets and out of basements.” 

People in need 

The city of Detroit has received 14,000 requests related to the flooding, and has contracted with Quicken Loans to provide 64 additional call center workers in an attempt to reduce response times.

But some Detroit residents who spoke during a public comment portion of the meeting expressed frustration at the slow wait times. One Virginia Park resident said she waited on hold for a total of four hours on Monday and another two hours today to try to help a senior citizen who has about two feet of water in her basement. 

“We need infrastructure,” a resident named Lillian Ellis said. “It's plain and simple. We need pump stations. We need flooding help. We need home repair help.” She called on city council members to vote against a proposal put forth by Mayor Duggan to allocate $826 million through the American Rescue Plan Act. 

Ellis and dozens of other residents said they did not think residents’ input was incorporated in the plan despite surveys and community meetings, arguing that the plan didn’t change significantly in the six weeks from when it was proposed to when it was sent to City Council for a vote. The funding passed with two members voting against it.  

Move from flood zones

Many residents also voiced frustrations about a comment made at the beginning of the meeting by city council member Scott Benson.  

"It's terrible to say, but if you live in a flood zone, should we continue to maintain and support that?” he said. 

“I just want to make sure that we're looking at the big picture and that everything is on the table, including [...] ‘If you live in a flood zone, we're no longer going to financially support you. You should not live in that area.’ And as times change, we may have outlived at this current time some of our own neighborhoods.” 

Two people who commented said they though the remarks from Benson amounted to what they called “eco-facisim.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Palencia Mobley's name.

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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