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Sorting through the mess after Metro Detroit's "floodpocalypse"

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Metro Detroit got hit with a record-breaking burst of rain Monday night—up to six inches in some spots.

The deluge left highways flooded, motorists stranded and thousands of basements swamped.

As the waters receded, it was time to clean up and assess the damage. Here’s a report from one of the hardest-hit areas: southeast Oakland County.

The state's busiest interchange, underwater

The I-75/696 interchange is the right at the heart of Metro Detroit’s freeway system—the busiest interchange in the state.

On a normal late weekday afternoon, you would see that in full effect.

But on Tuesday, the only vehicles rolling down the southbound on-ramp were Oakland County Road Commission trucks.

The freeway was dry by then, but it was still shut down. Less than 12 hours earlier, it was filled up with about 14 feet of water—all the way up almost to the overpass.

On Tuesday, MDOT spokeswoman Diane Cross said it wasn’t clear how long the area will be closed.

In fact, she wouldn’t even hazard a guess. Given the amount of water that was there, MDOT feared conditions could be genuinely dangerous. They were particularly concerned about erosion that could have affected bridges and ramps.

“We don’t know if it’s going to take two days, if it’s going to take seven days, if it’s going to take longer,” Cross said. “It’s unknown. And it is unfortunate, because that is the heaviest-traveled route in the state.”

Those fears didn’t materialize. By Wednesday evening, the region’s freeways were clear and for the most part functioning smoothly.

But it’s just the start of a long, difficult clean-up—for both government agencies, and the thousands of people whose homes and businesses suffered serious damage from the flooding.

Just a few blocks away, Al Krawiec was lugging trash to the curb just as the sky threatened to open up again.

“There’s no water left, but the damage is done,” Krawiec said of his basement.  “A lot of stuff has to be thrown away. There was almost two feet of water down there--I’m six foot three, and it was about up to my knees.”

Krawiec is far from the only one facing this situation—the curbs in his Royal Oak neighborhood were lined with tons of garbage. This area got hit the hardest, getting more than five inches of rain in just about three hours.

Sewage-filled water backed up into basements all over Metro Detroit, leaving many homeowners with swamped, moldy basements.

Way beyond the "average 10-year storm"

The process of cleaning up is and making repairs is still ongoing.

Oakland County water resources commissioner Jim Nash said a big reason the I-75/696 interchange flooded so badly was because a pumping station that’s one of the single biggest points in the whole county water infrastructure is right there—and it basically exploded.

Nash said that means the system itself needs a thorough cleaning now.

“When we have a rain event like this, once the water is all gone through, we go through and we wash it out,” Nash said. “We use millions of gallons of water to wash out all the things that were left by this storm. If you don’t do that, they build up over time and become concrete.”

Nash said the region’s infrastructure just isn’t built to handle this type of rainfall.

“We design for a 10-year storm, and this is much larger than the average 10-year storm,” he said. “This is way beyond our design. It’s just…we were overwhelmed by the amount of water.”

One tiny silver lining: Nash says this storm was so enormous that any large sewage overflows were probably heavily diluted.

But that’s little comfort to the people still cleaning out ruined basements—and a whole region struggling to recover from one of the strangest freak weather events anyone can remember.

Mark Schauer, Snyder’s Democratic opponent for Governor, also criticized him for not acting sooner.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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