“The flooding’s insane,” Blake Grannum says of the situation on Scripps Street in Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood.
Her street is a hot spot for flooding that’s affecting many parts of the neighborhood, including canal-adjacent sections of Ashland Street that are as much as a mile from the Detroit River. Water is covering the entirety of some streets, even reaching up to people’s front porches.
“You’ve got water from the sky, water from the canals and river, and then water from the city,” Grannum says.
Jefferson Chalmers is at the epicenter of flooding in Detroit in a year that has seen widespread floods across the country. The inundation here is a result of a combination of factors: historically high water levels in the Great Lakes, weeks of heavy rain, the low-lying nature of the area itself, and a lack of adequate seawalls.
Detroit’s combined sewer system is also a problem. Treatment facilities are forced to handle stormwater as well as sewage, treating all the water flowing into the sewers and sending it back into the river further downstream. A failure of this system—like the ones caused by heavy storms—mean sending untreated sewage into the river.
The city recently announced that it would invest $500 million over the next five years in upgrading its sewer system—but that doesn’t help residents of Jefferson Chalmers right now.
Grannum is concerned about the spread of waterborne diseases and mold, and her daily routine has been seriously altered by the flooding. “It’s a straight river in front of my house,” Grannum says.
To get around, she has to put on rain boots and walk across neighbors’ lawns and front porches to get to her car, which is parked a block and a half away.
This week the city responded to the increasingly serious flooding by issuing an emergency order, giving city workers and contractors the right to access private property in the neighborhood to install sandbags. City officials say they will distribute 100,000 sandbags to addresses that have experienced breaches in the seawall.
This initiative replaces the previous arrangement where residents would pick up sandbags from city distribution sites and install them themselves. The emergency order also imposes a penalty on anyone who moves sandbags without city approval.
“Cities like Grosse Pointe … have invested in levies and are somewhat protected by that,” Paul Max, an environmental specialist with the city of Detroit, says. But he notes that other cities like St. Clair Shores are also experiencing flooding.
One good piece of news for residents is that the Army Corps of Engineers predicts Lake Saint Clair won’t rise further and that Lake Erie—which the Detroit River drains into—will go down as well. This means that water levels in Jefferson Chalmers should subside soon, but it doesn’t rule out near-term rises in water-levels or localized effects from weather.
That’s not surprising, since flooding in Jefferson Chalmers has long been a problem. “It floods every year from the city drains and the sewage system,” Grannum says.
Palencia Mobley, deputy director and chief engineer at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, acknowledges past issues with sewer infrastructure, including flooding and sewer backups that occurred in 2016. But she says that the city has invested over $10 million in the past year, “inspecting and rehabilitating sewers in the neighborhood.”
Since the water has risen, the city has moved to limit the inflow to catch basins in some areas, using restrictors that reduced the drains from 30 holes to six. Mobley says that will cause some street flooding, but right now is necessary to reduce the pressure on the larger system, which includes the pumps and treatment facilities operated by the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA).
Some residents have also expressed concerns about the pumps operated by the GLWA, perhaps on account of a DWSD report from 2017 that showed widespread failure of the pumping stations Detroit’s east side. Mobley says that at present all the pumps are all working properly.
“I believe we’re managing as best we can in light of what has occurred,” she says.
On Harbor Island—across the canal from Scripps Street—homeowner Andi Webb doesn’t seem especially downcast, although she’s been dealing with flooding in her backyard since the beginning of May. “It’s been a continuous effort to try to keep the water out,” she says.
She praises the volunteers working to help the neighborhood, and also thinks it’s a positive development that the city itself is installing sandbags because some people haven’t always done so properly.
With a house and boathouse overlooking the canal and a short walk to Alfred Brush Ford Park, Webb doesn’t have any regrets about moving here with her family several years ago and believes that the flooding has brought her and her neighbors closer.
“I’m never going to move,” she says. “However long the water is going to be high, I don’t care because it’s totally worth it. I love it over here so much.”
Jefferson Chalmers residents can find additional resources—including information on dealing with mold, health issues and property tax assistance—at detroitmi.gov/flood.