MIDLAND, MI (MLIVE) — The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has arrived in Midland County to aid relief efforts in the wake of historic flooding caused by the failure of the Edenville Dam and breach of the Sanford Dam.
During a press conference held within the Midland Law Enforcement Center on Saturday, May 23, FEMA Regional Administrator James K. Joseph was joined by three Michigan politicians: U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing; U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township; and U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland.
Before the conference, Peters, Stabenow, Moolenaar, Joseph, and FEMA officials went on an aerial survey of the damage caused by the flooding and dam failure earlier this week. They also drove through Sanford to see the wreckage. All repeatedly spoke of the “devastation” that resulted from the flooding.
Joseph arrived in Michigan from Chicago on Friday. He said FEMA will have a two people on the ground on a daily basis, with a handful more in the county for the next several days for assessments. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, most of FEMA’s damage assessment will be conducted virtually, Joseph said.
The conference was held two days after President Donald J. Trump approved Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency declaration request, making FEMA resources available to the state and local governments.
Joseph and his team met with Whitmer in Lansing on Friday.
“We really talked about what the impacts have been so far, but also being able to see it firsthand today,” he said. “We were up in the air, looking at aerial coverage of where the dams were impacted, where the water impacted the community and the homes, and also having the opportunity to drive through some of those areas. While yes, it is absolutely devastating … we are encouraged, and I was encouraged by the fact that you really see the community coming together. You’re seeing neighbor helping neighbor. You’re seeing how this entire area, the cities and the county together are working hand-in-hand.”
When a damage assessment jointly occurs with FEMA, the state, and local communities, typically there is a team going neighborhood-to-neighborhood and door-to-door, Joseph said.
“But in this situation, in the COVID-constrained environment that we’re in, we will be doing things a little bit differently,” he continued. “We are not going to stop short of any assessment or any support. However, we will not be going door-to-door. We are going to respect, number one, the cleanup efforts that the impacted families are going through. We’re going to respect their personal space and we also want to ensure that we’re protecting the health of our FEMA, state, and local government employees as well. So we will be performing … a vast majority of the assessment virtually.”
Michigan State Police have been conducting aerial photography and local communities have been doing assessments by driving through affected areas. FEMA will use that data to render aid, Joseph said.
Moolenaar expressed his appreciation of FEMA’s response.
“There’s a lot of devastation, people really struggling right now,” Moolenaar said, “but people also pitching in, helping, neighbor helping neighbor in resilience and strength.”
Moolenaar spoke of a “spirit of optimism” he wanted to convey.
“We’re gonna come back from this, but we can’t do it alone,” he said. “That’s why we have some great help here, a bipartisan, bicameral effort.”
He went on thank Trump and Whitmer for securing FEMA’s assistance.
“I know we’re in the early steps, but we’re encouraged by the progress that’s being made,” he said. “The fact that there were no lives lost is really a miracle. It also speaks to preparation and leadership people showed and spirit of people who cooperated with evacuations.”
Stabenow referred to the disaster as “another punch in the gut to everybody in mid-Michigan after having to battle a virus.”
Having been born in Gladwin and raised in Clare, and with family still in the area, the incident has affected Stabenow on a personal level, she said.
“This is devastating for people,” she said. “We did get a chance to see aerial view. It’s devastating, overwhelming.”
On driving through Sanford, she saw residents handing out lunches and cooking meals for their beleaguered neighbors.
“That’s who we are in Michigan,” she said, adding the state is fortunate to have Peters as the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that oversees FEMA.
Peters said it was an “incredible experience in seeing the devastation” families are facing.
“Going through Sanford was definitely something that I will always remember,” he said. “When you understand just the dramatic impact on people’s lives who have been completely upended, and you just think about being completely upended like that at a time when we’re experiencing a pandemic. It’s just unimaginable.”
Both Peters and Stabenow stated the Edenville Dam’s failure and Sanford Dam’s breach could have been avoided.
“This is something that could have been prevented,” Peters said. “We have dams that were clearly weakened. Folks knew that they would give in a very severe storm. We’re now entering a period of human history where we’re going to see with climate change severe storms more regularly. We’re going to see the magnitude of those storms increase as well and we need to be prepared. So as the rebuilding process goes forward, we have to make sure we’re rebuilding for resiliency, not just replacing what we had before.”
Stabenow concurred, saying Edenville Dam-owners Boyce Hydro had stonewalled federal regulators for years prior to this week’s flooding.
“This privately owned dam could have been addressed before if the owner had stepped up to do it when he was being told that there were problems for years,” she said.
“As I walked through Sanford, it just confirmed to me we can’t let this happen again,” Peters said. “Preventable occurrences like these out here are simply unacceptable.”