Helpless, angry and stranded — what it’s l...

Helpless, angry and stranded — what it’s like living on a flooded Detroit street

Flooding has persisted throughout July 2019 on Scripps Street, in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood of Detroit. Photos courtesy Blake Grannum.

A wet summer, record-high water levels across the region and a crumbling water and sewer system have submerged a community on Detroit’s east side for two weeks straight. 

Scripps Street, which runs along a canal in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, is covered in water several feet deep between Ashland and Chalmers. Detroit announced Wednesday the city would be “stepping up its efforts to stop river and canal water from flooding homes and streets,” with crews arriving in residents’ yards to bolster sea walls.

Blake Grannum has lived on Scripps her whole life. She found the city statement “insulting” after what she characterized as “a lack of effort and a lack of communication” from the city. 

“I’ve never felt so helpless and let down by my own local government,” she said, quoting an email she sent to dozens of local leaders.

Grannum said she spent the last two weeks trying to get help with little response. She’s seen some city workers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers out on the streets and in yards since the street was flooded — water levels haven’t gone down since at least June 28 — but it hasn’t yet made a difference.

Her house, built in 1939, backs up to the canal, where the water has risen close to the top of her seawall. Water has breached some of her neighbors’ seawalls, with potentially weeks to go before water levels recede for the season. Grannum has placed about 300 sandbags along the seawall and around her house to divert water, and she and a neighbor frequently rake debris and branches from the street drain. 

But the flooding has filled her basement with waist-high, rancid-smelling water, leaving her and her mother with no washer or dryer, no hot water and health concerns about mold spores growing.

“The fact that the only thing I want for my birthday is a hot shower is crazy,” said Grannum.

Mayor Mike Duggan first addressed the flooding in early May, when hundreds of volunteers came out to fill 18,000 sandbags and build barriers.

On Wednesday, the city said workers had been “out in the neighborhood clearing storm drains, assessing problem areas and helping to place more barriers” since early July. The city also issued an emergency order allowing workers to access private property to place sandbags. This week, they’re putting thousands more sandbags along low spots on seawalls and banks. 

Spokesman John Roach told Detour more than 70,000 sandbags have been placed so far and another 100,000 are being prepared. The city is working with the Army Corps of Engineers on longer-term solutions, Roach said.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department crews have been inspecting and clearing drains of potential clogs daily since late last week.

“The combined sewer system which collects both stormwater and sewage is functioning properly and all the pumps are working,” department spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh said. 

Topography of the neighborhood forms a “bowl” with areas in red representing lower elevation and green representing higher elevations. Sewer backup water within this “bowl area” would not be able to leave as runoff, making this area flood prone.

Data Sources: Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood boundary digitized from Detroit Vacant Property Campaign, 2013; LiDAR DEM from University of Michigan. Via 2014 U of M Master project “Stormwater Management in Southeast Detroit.”

“The system takes on a certain amount of flow at one time through the catch basins based on the designed size of the covers and the pipes in order to not overwhelm the pumps and wet weather treatment facilities,” Peckinpaugh explained. “Therefore, when there is several million gallons of unprecedented river water flowing onto the street, it takes time for the sewer system to collect all that water.”

DWSD workers have been blocking some drains away from homes in order to allow more capacity in the sewer system. The department has relined sections of sewer pipe in the neighborhood to mitigate street flooding and backups at a cost of $20 million so far and plans to make capital improvements at the Conner Creek Combined Sewer Overflow facility.

“At this point this is not just about protecting people’s homes and personal property. That is a major focus, but it’s also about reducing the demand on our wet weather pumping and treatment facilities,” DWSD Director Gary Brown said in a statement. “Our system has performed beautifully given the extraordinary demand.”

Flooding is not new to Jefferson Chalmers, where residents have repeatedly complained of damage due to sewer backups and faltering infrastructure. However, Grannum said this is the worst she can remember, and the only time in decades the canals have flooded.

The neighborhood and other areas of Metro Detroit experiencedsubstantial flooding this spring, prompting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer todeclare an emergency in Wayne County in early May. And water levelshit record highs last month on Lakes St. Clair, Erie, Ontario and Superior, with above-average rainfall around the Great Lakes region over the last three months. 

These extreme weather changes can be linked to climate change. They can also lead to health and safety risks for Detroit’s vulnerable populations.

In a University of Michigan-Dearborn study, Detroiters identified health concerns from flooding they had experienced, including the spread of infectious disease, black mold, sewage backup, exacerbated asthma and respiratory illness, personal injury and degraded mental health. 

Household sensitivity and flood potential on Detroit’s east side. Data: American Community Survey 2006-2010; US Census 2010. Via University of Michigan Detroit Climate Capstone 2012.

In Jefferson Chalmers, Grannum worries about her elderly, low-income neighbors. 

“The people who live in the neighborhood have been there forever,” she said. “That’s a lot of history.” 

Without getting real answers from the city and no end to the flooding in sight, Grannum can’t help but feel like her neighborhood — which she described as a rare place where lower-income black and brown families own waterfront property — has been abandoned. 

“Everybody feels that way on the block. ‘Y’all are doing this on purpose, you’re not trying to help us,’” she said.

As development has increased in Jefferson Chalmers and canal properties get new waves of attention (the area was spotlighted in a Pure Michigan campaign earlier this month) she feels like longtime residents are being pushed out. Strangers regularly show up and ask to buy her family home, even last week as the floodwaters rose. 

“My dad worked way too hard to get that house and keep that house to give it up,” she said. “I will sit on the top of my house and float away before I sell it or give up the land.” 

Are you dealing with flooding? Thinking about climate change resilience? Or can you effectively explain sewer system problems to a liberal arts major? Give Kate a shout.

Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl