‘Not just an inconvenience’: Study shows flood...

‘Not just an inconvenience’: Study shows flooding is a public health crisis in Detroit

“Every single time it rains, you’re trying to pray and figure out if the water level is going to rise? Are the sewers going back to get backed up?”

Sandbags in Jefferson Chalmers on April 28, 2020. Credit: Amy Sacka

In Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, Blake Grannum is experiencing an almost remarkable flood-free spring. The water-filled “Tiger Dams” that the city installed still stand in her backyard, forming a bulwark between her neighborhood and the system of canals that connects to the Detroit River. She now has a working washer and dryer, as well as hot water, after the intense flooding of previous years filled her basement, breaking appliances and leaving her family in conditions that she describes as “almost not livable.”

“Honestly, a hot shower means everything to me,” Grannum said. “Every day that I’m able to take a hot shower and wash my clothes, I’m just really thankful.”

Still, Grannum believes that climate change means the flooding will return to her street, where the combination of rising water on the river and backups from the city’s aging sewer system puts the area at an elevated risk. In addition to the financial toll of the cleanup and replacing expensive appliances, she says that dealing with multiple emergencies over a few years has affected her health.

“Mentally, it is stressful,” she said. “Every single time it rains, you’re trying to pray and figure out if the water level is going to rise? Are the sewers going back to get backed up?”

She says that standing water is also not likely to be good for her physical health. Both she and her mother have asthma, something that could be caused by mold in the house.

Blake Grannum in her Jefferson Chalmers backyard. Photo by Nick Hagen.

A preprint for a new study from researchers at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan shows there are likely many people in her position dealing with the mental and physical fallout from flooding, which has been made worse by climate change and the city’s aging long-neglected infrastructure

This report suggests that flooding may contribute to higher rates of asthma. Other research has demonstrated a connection between these events and mental health problems like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And homes in areas with a high number of African American residents and a large percentage of rental units were more likely to flood, potentially compounding existing inequities created by racism, disinvestment and population loss.

“It’s not just an inconvenience, especially this recurrent flooding that is happening for a lot of residents,” said Natalie Sampson, a professor in the College of Education, Health and Human Services at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and a co-author of the study. Calling it a “beastly issue”, Sampson said that it will be a difficult challenge for the city to confront both climate change and aging infrastructure simultaneously to help residents experiencing flooding year after year.

The study found that about 43% of surveyed Detroiters had experienced flooding. Neighborhoods like Jefferson Chalmers, the Lower East Side area, Warrendale and Southwest Detroit were found to be especially vulnerable. And very old homes and newer ones were most likely to be affected, while those built between 1930 and 1960 were least likely to flood.

 An earlier study in Warrendale on Detroit’s west side showed how profoundly this issue can affect a neighborhood. Of 164 homes surveyed in that study, 64% had flooded in the last year and many had seen three or four events.

And Sampson says that extreme weather and flooding are becoming more common on account of climate change.

“We’ve already seen it; it’s happening,” she said. “It’s not like it’s 30 years out in the future. We’re already experiencing much greater extreme events.”

Flooding and public health

Pete Larson, an epidemiologist and researcher at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and lead author of the flooding study, says that households that experienced floods were more likely to have someone with asthma, suggesting that mold could be causing respiratory problems. 

Although a direct link between flooding and asthma in Detroit hasn’t been proven, the researchers’ findings indicate that it could be adding to the city’s high incidence of asthma. According to a 2016 report, the city’s adult asthma rate is 29% higher than the state average, while asthma-related hospitalizations are nearly three times greater.

Yet, water winding up in Detroit basements could be bringing more than just respiratory issues, particularly if it contains sewage from the city’s combined sewer system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that exposure to contaminated water can lead to gastrointestinal illnesses, skin rashes, tetanus and infected wounds.

Add to these concerns the injuries that are more likely to occur when dealing with a major disruption like a water-filled basement. “You will also have all these potentials for hazardous conditions,” said Roshanak Mehdipanah, an assistant professor of health behavior & health education at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. “People don’t talk about injuries at home, but they’re huge.”

Peter Larson near Wheeler Park in Ann Arbor, a park and neighborhood in the floodplain. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Research shows that children and the elderly may be most at risk for physical and mental problems from a flood. And mortality was shown to increase dramatically in the months that followed Hurricane Katrina and the high water that came with it.

However, physical ailments are only part of what makes these events so devastating. “Once you’ve experienced flooding–even flooded basements–you are put on alert that this might happen again and it’s something you can’t control,” Larson said. Previous research has found that mental health problems like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increased in the years following major floods.

For Detroiters, some of this stress may come from dealing with the event itself, but it can be made worse by the expense of replacing water heaters, washers and dryers as well as the difficulty of dealing with government agencies and insurance companies to get help paying for damages.

Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, CEO and Founder of Empowering A Green Environment and Economy, LLC, an environmental consulting firm, has dealt with the issue of flooding in Detroit neighborhoods through her research and also personally, serving as an advocate for her parents who had flooding in their home. She believes that the mental aspect of recovering from these events is almost as critical as the physical health impacts, particularly for those on a limited income who are dealing with flooding repeatedly. But there is a social cost as well.

Jalonne White-Newsome. Photo by Nick Hagen.

“There are many folks that experienced floods that cannot go back into their homes, and they are displaced for a long time,” she said. 

What makes this worse is that communities may be losing the very thing they need for support when disasters like floods or heat waves happen. White-Newsome said that by displacing people, climate change disrupts the support networks that people need to endure the “repeated insults, not only from climate but from systemic racism.”

Getting help where it’s needed

Larson emphasizes that Detroit’s flooding stems from both extreme weather, but also housing age and quality as well as infrastructure. 

“Detroit was designed for a much larger city,” he said. “Whatever infrastructure was put in… was assumed to be maintained in the future and, obviously, that hasn’t happened to the extent it needs to be.”

The city of Detroit has been making some efforts to update its infrastructure, investing $240 million to replace miles of water mains and sewers. This also includes green infrastructure projects for the west side’s Aviation Subdivision, where bioretention gardens have been installed to help keep storm water out of sewers and basements. 

White-Newsome says that the hardest-hit areas of the city need to be targeted for resources to help them adapt to what could be an escalating crisis. One organization working on this is the Eastside Community Network (ECN), which has engaged in projects like the Hamilton Rainscape Learning Lab where residents can learn about how green infrastructure can be used to manage stormwater. ECN plans to open the Stoudamire Wellness Hub at 4401 Conner Street where residents can access an array of resources for responding to climate change, including help with assessing what is causing flooding on their properties and what can be done to prevent it.

Detroit’s Office of Sustainability has included climate change resilience measures on their Sustainability Action Agenda and a new Climate Strategy effort looks to get resident input on how to target resources to where they’re most needed for mitigation. 

Sandbags along the side of Blake’s home to prevent basement flooding. Photo by Nick Hagen.

But in the past, some have criticized the city for seeming to deprioritize the Office of Sustainability by cutting staff, suggesting a coordinated response to environmental issues and public health is lacking.  

Richard Ackerman, director of climate equity for ECN, says that too much pressure is being put on residents to pay for cleanups that they can’t afford.

“When you’re talking about sustainability and climate equity and these big concepts, you need to do long term planning,” he said. “And a lot of the things that our city has been doing feel more short-term.”

In Jefferson Chalmers, Grannum feels that help is needed immediately to repair seawalls to hold back water from the river and also to upgrade sewer infrastructure to prevent backups. Yet, as much as anything, she would like to have more communication from the city. 

She says she hasn’t seen anyone from the city in months, even though the bright orange Tiger Dams are still snaking their way through the neighborhood. And she has no idea what the long-term plan for the neighborhood is or if there even is a plan.

“They’re going to get higher,” she said of the water levels. “The same thing is going to happen again.”

This report was made possible in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism of the Society of Environmental JournalistsSEJ credits its foundation partners and other donors for supporting this project.

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