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Trump Sends FEMA to Michigan as Flood Dislocates Thousands

David Welch and Derek Wallbank
Trump Sends FEMA to Michigan as Flood Dislocates Thousands

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said he’s sending federal emergency workers to Midland, Michigan, where dam failures have flooded a Dow Inc. chemical complex and homes in a disaster that may force the evacuation of more than 10,000 people.

After two days of heavy rainfall, water from Wixom Lake breached one dam yesterday evening and then another late at night. That has caused Dow to close its headquarters and the manufacturing complex while the county has evacuated 1,000 people. As water levels rise to record levels, the City of Midland started plans to evacuate 10,000 more.

In his tweeted response, Trump used the moment to take a shot at Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The two have tussled over getting medical supplies to the state and Trump, along with Michigan Republicans, have pressed the Democrat to open businesses sooner.

“We have sent our best Military & @fema Teams, already there,” Trump tweeted today, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Governor must now ‘set you free’ to help. Will be with you soon!”

Flooding in central Michigan is just the latest disaster to hit the state, whose new governor is already working to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Michigan is ranked seventh in cases of Covid-19 and fourth in the number of deaths.

Whitmer shot back when asked about criticism from Trump and Republicans amid the twin crises. The president is scheduled to visit the state tomorrow to tour a Ford Motor Co. factory that converted to make medical supplies.

“To see Twitter this morning and see rhetoric like that is disheartening,” Whitmer said at a press conference in Midland on Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve got to take politics out of this and remember that we are all Americans fighting for our lives and our economy.”

Better weather today has at least given the region a break from heavy rain, but the Tittabawassee River may have crested at a record 35 feet today, said Bridgette Gransden, Midland County administrator and controller, in a phone interview. By then, Midland will probably have to evacuate a quarter of its 40,000 residents, she said.

“Midland County is not a stranger to flooding,” Gransden said. “Each flood experience is different. If we need to find other arrangements to shelter more people we will.”

Of the 1,000 evacuated so far, about 300 had taken up in designated shelters while others made different arrangements. The city of Midland started an evacuation order for about 10,000 people, Gransden said.

The region may be seeing a reprieve from the disaster. Clear weather and a lack of rainfall has seen the flooding recede by a few inches and may have peaked, Gransden said. If the water level continues to fall, downtown Midland may not be so heavily impacted.

Dow said its operations are still closed down, but the company maintains that the flooding hadn’t released any chemicals into the region’s water.

“It was confirmed there were flood waters commingling with an on-site pond used for storm water and brine system/groundwater remediation,” the company said on its Facebook page. “The material from the pond commingling with the flood waters does not create any threat to residents or environmental damage.”

Whitmer said it’s not clear yet how much damage the two dams have incurred and added that if the floods were the result of negligence, the state will seek recourse.

The owner of the Edenville Dam had its license revoked by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2018 because “throughout its ownership of the project Boyce Hydro Power LLC repeatedly failed to comply with its license for the Edenville Project, the Commission’s regulations, and Commission orders.” The concerns included the project’s ability to withstand floods.

Boyce representatives couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

“The state of Michigan is reviewing every legal recourse we can,” Whitmer said at the press conference. “We will hold people responsible. The initial readout is that this was a known problem.”

Whitmer had announced an emergency declaration and told people to evacuate the area during a Tuesday night press conference, saying downtown Midland could face 9 feet of water. “To go through this in the midst of a global pandemic is almost unthinkable,” she said.

The Michigan State Police said that about 130 soldiers and more than 40 specialized vehicles from the Michigan National Guard arrived in the area at about 4 a.m. to evacuate citizens, augment emergency plans and offer logistics support. The Guard’s Light Medium Tactical Vehicles are capable of driving through high water. More than 200 soldiers and additional equipment are expected to arrive throughout the day.

Company Town

Midland, a two-hour drive northwest of Detroit, is the very definition of a company town. Herbert Henry Dow arrived there in 1890 and founded the company, which is now the city’s major employer.

The breached dams are upstream of Dow’s headquarters, forcing the chemical company to activate emergency plans as the surge of water reached its industrial complex. Dow “is implementing its flood preparedness plan which includes the safe shutdown of operating units on site,” the company said. For now, Dow says the rising water is being dealt with through on-site containment ponds.

Dow rose 1.5% to $36.18 in New York on Wednesday, amid a broader rise in the stock market.

The chemical giant said that “only essential Dow staff needed to monitor the situation and manage any issues as a result of the flooding remain on site.” Other companies with operations at Dow’s complex include DuPont de Nemours Inc. and Corteva Inc. The companies are working together on their response, a Dow spokesperson said.

A variety of chemical and industrial products, including Styrofoam and pesticides, are made by the companies in Midland and the surrounding region by Saginaw Bay, the leg of Lake Huron that dips into Michigan’s eastern side. Dow agreed last year to pay $77 million for environmental restoration projects to make up for pollution from the Midland plant, according to the Associated Press.

The Edenville Dam, at the base of nearby Wixom Lake, failed amid high floodwaters in the area, sending water gushing through a now-gaping hole near its spillway. A second one, the Sanford Dam at the base of Sanford Lake, had also failed, according to the National Weather Service, which issued an alert advising of “extremely dangerous flash flooding” in the area.

The river that flows below those lakes through Midland crested at nearly 34 feet in a 1986 flood that saw Dow Chemical shutter nearly all of its local operations. Floodwaters in Midland are expected to reach nearly 4 feet higher than that on Wednesday, Gransden said.

The prospect of catastrophic floodwaters at an industrial plant stirs painful memories in Michigan, which has a history of problems with toxins slipping into ground water, especially PFAS compounds. The state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy lists 91 sites with poisonous levels of the compound in the water.

In January, State Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a lawsuit against 17 defendants, including DuPont and 3M Co., for contaminating sites in Michigan. The companies have denied liability and vowed to defend themselves.

(Updates with impact on residents in the 10th paragraph)

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