TAWAS CITY – In an area already rocked by record-high lake levels for more than a year, a significant rain event didn’t help the situation in Iosco County.
Road closures, washed out bridges and the flooding of yards and homes were among the items reported as a result of the rain, which began on the evening of Sunday, May 17. The precipitation poured down well into Monday, tapering off later on, with some of the rain hanging on through the morning of Tuesday, May 19.
The ensuing flooding prompted the Iosco County Board of Commissioners to issue a disaster declaration in the county. (See separate story for details).
Meteorologist Patrick Bak, of the National Weather Service (NWS) in Gaylord, says that East Tawas received 7.97 inches of rain over a two-day period, while National City was met with 5.76 inches in 48 hours. He added that Sterling, located in neighboring Arenac County, received 7.2 inches of rain, with the Rifle River having a record-high crest.
As for Iosco County, Bak says the numbers in East Tawas and National City represent a 150-year recurrence interval. In other words – and based on historical comparisons – the likelihood of rainfall reaching these levels is once in 150 years.
He noted that a flood watch was in effect for the county, from Sunday afternoon through Monday, with an areal flood warning also being issued on Monday.
According to the NWS, an areal flood warning is normally issued for flooding that develops more gradually, usually from prolonged and persistent moderate to heavy rainfall. This results in a gradual ponding or buildup of water in low-lying, flood prone areas, as well as small creeks and streams. Even though this type of flooding develops more slowly than flash flooding, it can still be a threat to life and property.
Bak described the activity last week as unusual, in that there wasn’t terribly heavy rainfall all at once, but it hung on for so many hours and rained for the better part of a day and a half to two days.
This was part of a larger event which started from a very slow moving area of pressure, with moisture coming from the Gulf of Mexico, Bak continued. When it reached Iosco, it sat and just kept raining. The slow moving system is what led to the major issues/damage and, even if the county experienced the same amount of rainfall, there wouldn’t have been such an impact if it had moved through faster.
One municipality hit hard by the precipitation is Tawas City, as discussed during the online council meeting on Monday, May 18.
City Manager Annge Horning reported that the Sixth Avenue bridge was blocked off that evening, as were some road segments.
Shortly after the meeting wrapped up, crews were spotted blocking off the Mathews Street bridge, as well.
In addition to the boardwalk near Tawas City Veteran’s Park being submerged that day, Horning noted that water leaked into Tawas City Hall, and that a company had been on site to extract water from the carpets.
She advised that the council chambers got the worst of it and, had officials met in person that night, they would have had to relocate the meeting.
Horning said it was previously discovered that there was some unfinished work on the outside of the building, so this may have had something to do with it. She reached out to a contractor to determine what needs to be done to fix the problem but, either way, the city will have to wait for everything to be completely dry before anything can be done.
“We had a sanitary sewer overflow in the middle of Ninth Avenue, bubbling up out of the manhole cover,” Horning went on. “We’ve reported it to EGLE and the health department, but there isn’t anything that we can do about it until the water level goes down.”
Iosco County wasn’t the only area battling heavy rains. A firsthand account of the issues in Gladwin County were shared by Lt. Michael Brown, assistant commander of the Michigan State Police (MSP) West Branch Post.
In a May 19 e-mail to Iosco County Sheriff Allan MacGregor, Brown expressed his appreciation to the department for allowing the MSP to use the Iosco County Sheriff’s Office Humvee on the night of May 18, and throughout the next day.
“Due to the extraordinarily heavy rain and the potential for dam overtopping or failure in Gladwin County, throughout yesterday evening I was in touch with Gladwin Co. Sheriff Mike Shea as well as with Lt. Chuck Barker from MSP Emergency Management and Homeland Security,” Brown wrote. “Around midnight, as the situation became precarious, Lt. Barker contacted me and the other commanders within the district to advise Bob North, the Emergency Manager in Gladwin County, was looking for ‘very heavy vehicles’ to use in an evacuation procedure for approximately 50 homes along the Cedar River that were cut off by floodwaters and were in need of immediate evacuation due to the failure of the Chapel dam.”
When asked if he had any ideas, Brown stated that his first thought was of the Humvee.
Following a series of very quick phone calls to see if the Humvee was something that would be useful, Brown contacted Iosco County Jail Administrator, Capt. Scott Frank. Within minutes, Frank was headed to the office to get the Humvee warmed up, while the MSP was en route to transport it back to Gladwin.
“The fact that I can pick up my phone and call your department to request this resource and have it made available, in the middle of the night and without hesitation, speaks volumes about the long-standing cooperative spirit that exists between our two agencies,” Brown expressed in his e-mail.
Flooding impacted the Iosco County Building as well, according to Iosco County Co-Administrator/Board of Commissioners Secretary Mindy Schirmer, who said officials were first alerted to the basement flooding on Monday, May 18.
She said that section of the basement houses files from various departments in the county building, including the Iosco County Trial Court and clerk’s office.
Some of the damaged records, Schirmer said, are “retention records” meaning they must be stored for 30 years by the county. She said water has been continually pumped out of the basement and the county’s insurance carrier has sent teams to remove the damaged files and begin remediation work, as of last week.
Also damaged in that part of the basement, Schirmer said, was one of the building’s heating boilers. She said a crew is coming to the county building to examine the boiler for damage.
As of last week Schirmer said the amount of files damaged and cost to the damage could not yet be calculated.
One area which has been left struggling in the aftermath of the weather is Midland County, for which Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency on May 19, after the Edenville and Sanford Dams breached.
The following day, she sent a letter to President Donald Trump, requesting federal aid in responding to the catastrophic flooding.
“Over the past two days, a major rainfall event in mid-Michigan led to the failure of two dams and severe flooding in affected areas. Thousands of people were forced to evacuate as water surged into their streets, homes, and businesses in the county of Midland,” Whitmer said at the time.
She then called on Trump to declare an emergency for Midland County on an expedited basis.
Whitmer says that, beginning May 16, a storm system moved through Michigan, resulting in six to eight inches of rain over a 48-hour period. In response to the rainfall and localized flooding, Gladwin and Midland counties declared local States of Emergency on May 18, followed by the counties of Saginaw and Arenac on May 19. When the Edenville and Sanford dams breached, it required more than 10,000 Midland County residents to evacuate their homes due to the imminent danger from this 500-year flood event.
“Despite our efforts, local and state resources have been insufficient to respond to the situation. The availability of equipment and personnel is further limited due to the ongoing effects and response requirements of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic,” Whitmer stated. “Therefore, additional federal assistance is required to protect public health, safety, and property, and to lessen or avert the threat of more severe and persisting impacts to the community.”
Aid the state is requesting includes, but is not limited to, debris removal; mobile bridges to ensure access for emergency response vehicles and equipment to flooded areas; emergency medical responders from the National Guard; and technical assistance and sandbags from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“We have remained engaged with Midland County officials as the situation has progressed,” said Capt. Kevin Sweeney, deputy state director of Emergency Management and Homeland Security and commander of the MSP/EMHSD. “We will continue to partner with the county to ensure they receive the needed resources to respond and recover from this incident.”
A number of street closures remain in effect throughout Midland County and the City of Midland. Residents are advised to obey all road closure signs and to stay clear of standing water, flooded areas and floating debris. Residents should not attempt to drive or walk through any standing water, and should take extra precaution where electrical items may be submerged. Shelters have opened across the county and those seeking more information on this, road closures or other updates, are asked to visit Midland911.org.
Details on this situation were also shared by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). They report that, nearly 24 hours before the Edenville Dam collapsed, DNR conservation officers began evacuating people in homes and businesses positioned downriver of the dam.
Shortly before dark, the dam collapsed and created life-threatening, flash flood conditions that forced a mandatory evacuation for the city of Midland, including residents, businesses, medical facilities and Dow Chemical’s headquarters – all in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We will continue working with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to assist with patrol vessels anywhere we can,” said Lt. Jeremy Payne, the DNR’s district law supervisor in Bay City.
As a result of the dam failures, the Tittabawassee River overflowed its 24-foot flood stage and was expected to crest around 38 feet on May 20. At 7 a.m. that day, the NWS said the flood stage was over 34 feet and rising.
More than 20 conservation officers from throughout the region responded with 10 DNR patrol vessels and search and rescue equipment to help continue the evacuation of flood victims, including animals.
“Conservation officers are specially trained and strategically placed in communities throughout the state with the equipment they need to respond to natural disasters and emergency situations such as this,” said Chief Gary Hagler, DNR Law Enforcement Division. “This is a difficult time for our state and the people in the Midland community affected by the flooding, and we are here to help.”