Detroit’s Eastside faces ‘two nightmares’ of...

Detroit’s Eastside faces ‘two nightmares’ of flooding and COVID-19

city of detroit orange and white sign denoting sewage problems

Scripps Street on April 3. Photo by Brian Allnutt.

On Scripps street in Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers Neighborhood, Blake Grannum, 36, has been nervously watching the canal that links her backyard to the Detroit River. She has lived in this house her entire life and has experienced floods before, but this doesn’t make her any less anxious.

“Right now, the water is extremely high,” she says, “and I’m just imagining it coming over it in the next week or two.”

If the canal overtops the sixty-foot seawall behind the house that she shares with her mother, this would be the second year of flooding on her property in a row. Already some houses on the block and elsewhere in the neighborhood are seeing water breach their seawalls and trickle out onto nearby streets. Grannum says the canal is only two to three inches away from inundating her property.

This year, the city seems poised to respond with flood prevention measures that weren’t available last year, most notably the use of “Tiger Dams” — long tubes filled with water that forms a barrier to stand in for missing or inadequate seawalls. But with water rising, the city is just beginning to put flood protection in place at the same time it organizes its response to one of the worst COVID-19-19 outbreaks in the nation. 

High water on the way

This year’s flooding has the potential to be worse than 2019, according to Deanna Apps, a scientist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USCACE) office in Detroit. In March, Lakes Erie, Michigan, Huron and St. Clair set new records for water levels. Apps says that Lake St. Clair serves as a proxy for conditions on the Detroit River since it empties into the river right at Detroit border.

“All the lakes right now are in their period of seasonal rise,” Apps says. Water on Lake St. Clair is expected to peak in May or June, rising by “seven inches or so” and setting new records before declining in late summer and fall. 

In other words, Apps expects there to be more than enough of a rise to spill over Grannum’s seawall. 

Scripps Street on April 3. Photo by Brian Allnutt.

The question is not if but when this will happen. Monthly predictions from USACE forecast a two-inch rise on Lake St. Clair by May 3, making the timeline for preventing flooding a matter of weeks, especially accounting for the local variability of water levels driven by wind.  

Nicole Simmons, a press secretary for the City of Detroit, told Planet Detroit that the city will begin rolling out the Tiger Dams along the riverfront and canal seawalls on April 9. 

“This is a much more aggressive approach to protecting the City’s combined sewer infrastructure and resident’s property,” Simmons said in an email, “not just being reactionary and providing sandbags to plug holes.”

Simmons said that as of now, staffing levels for this effort have not been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. However, at least one person who was involved in flood control efforts last year, District 4 Manager for the Mayor’s Office Letty Azar, has been pulled away for COVID-19 response, although she is still providing residents with updates on what the city is doing according to emails shared with Planet Detroit

]In the past, residents of Jefferson Chalmers have complained about heavy rains causing sewage to back up into their basements. Bryan Peckinpaugh from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says this problem has been addressed by a multi-million-dollar investment to install sewer linings in the neighborhood. However, a nearby wastewater treatment station poses another threat. 

“If the plant were to become overwhelmed during a flood event, it could cause a backup of sewage into basements in the area,” USACE said in a press release. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started a project on April 2 to build a 1500-foot temporary levee on the Harding Canal in the Marina District to protect the treatment plant.

Flooding and the potential for disease spread

If flooding does happen, it could make the pandemic worse for affected residents of the neighborhood by creating difficulties in accessing supplies and emergency services as well as potentially spreading COVID-19 or other diseases. 

Although there have been no documented reports of COVID-19 transmission via water, scientists have begun using wastewater to track the spread of the disease.  The medical journal The Lancet has said that fecal matter could serve as a transmission route. In addition to backed-up plumbing, combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that empty into the Great Lakes could potentially spread the coronavirus or other pathogens. These systems—which are present in many older cities—collect sewage and rainwater into a single pipe for treatment, but during heavy storms often discharge untreated or partially treated sewage into waterways. 

Studies also suggest the possibility that disease can spread through drinking water intakes. One study showing an increase in gastrointestinal illnesses after heavy rains in cities that have CSOs. Another report found a host of pathogens in combined sewer overflows, including respiratory viruses. Flooding has been studied as a threat multiplier for vulnerable communities, because of factors like mold from wet environments that can exacerbate respiratory illnesses. 

High water could also increase disease exposure pathways indirectly. Grannum says that last year’s flood destroyed the washer and drier in her basement, forcing her and her mother to go to the laundromat, which could expose them to diseases like COVID-19. She says many people in her neighborhood have their water heaters in their basements. If these are damaged, sanitary conditions for the neighborhood’s residents could be compromised. Grannum says many of the residents are elderly and therefore at increased risk from the coronavirus. 

In the long run, Grannum says she would like to see the city help her neighbors with an affordable plan for building seawalls. Climate change is a factor here as well, helping to create the heavy downpours that are likely to produce more flooding in the future. 

But for now, Grannum just hopes the city can come out in time to prevent the deluge that threatens the neighborhood.

“You have this pandemic that’s happening where people are trying to hold on to a little bit of money and figure out how to pay all their bills and then you’ve got this flooding situation,” Grannum says. “It’s like two nightmares hovering over the residents here.” 

Brian Allnutt is a writer living in Detroit. He covers open space, environmental justice, food and gardening.