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Thousands forced to leave as river dams break in central Michigan

Firefighters launch a boat as the Tittabawassee River overflows on Wednesday in Midland, Michigan. People living along two mid-Michigan lakes and parts of a river have been forced to leave following several days of heavy rain that produced flooding and put pressure on local dams. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Firefighters launch a boat as the Tittabawassee River overflows on Wednesday in Midland, Michigan. People living along two mid-Michigan lakes and parts of a river have been forced to leave following several days of heavy rain that produced flooding and put pressure on local dams. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

By CARLOS OSORIO, COREY WILLIAMS and TAMMY WEBBER

MIDLAND, Mich. (AP) — Floodwaters have overtaken dams and forced the evacuation of about 10,000 people from places in central Michigan, where the governor warned that the hometown of Dow Chemical Co. could end up under about 9 feet of water by Wednesday evening and said the state will investigate the dam operators.

Families living along the Tittabawassee River and connected lakes in Midland County were ordered to leave home Tuesday evening, the second time in less than 24 hours. By Wednesday morning, water several feet deep covered some streets, parking lots and parkland and had reached a hotel near the river in downtown Midland.

The river topped a previous record reading of 33.9 feet set during flooding in 1986, the National Weather Service said. Its flood stage is 24 feet, and it was expected to crest by day’s end at about 38 feet.

The Weather Service urged anyone near the river to seek higher ground following “catastrophic dam failures” at the Edenville Dam, about 140 miles north of Detroit, and the Sanford Dam, about seven miles downriver.

Midland City Manager Brad Kaye said Wednesday that the Sanford Dam is overflowing but that the extent of the structural damage is not yet known.

If the entire dam structure is gone, as opposed to portions of it, “there would be a much higher surge that will come down the river and that could raise the level much more quickly than what we’re seeing right at the moment,” Kaye said.

The evacuations come as Michigan remains under a stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. While Michigan has been a national hot spot for COVID-19, with more than 52,000 cases and 5,000 deaths, Midland County has had fewer than 80 cases and under 10 deaths. Still, some dealing with the flooding and evacuations remained aware of the dangers posed by the virus.

Area schools were set up as shelters Tuesday, with cots spaced apart to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said downtown Midland, a city of 42,000 people, faced an especially serious flooding threat.

“In the next 12 to 15 hours, downtown Midland could be under approximately 9 feet of water,” the governor said during a late Tuesday briefing. “We are anticipating an historic high water level.”

On Wednesday, Whitmer told reporters that her office has been in touch with the federal government and will ask FEMA for support. “This is an event unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” she said.

President Donald Trump tweeted that he was closely monitoring the situation and praised first responders. But he also took a jab at Whitmer, whom he has criticized for her stay-at-home orders during the pandemic: “We have sent our best Military & @fema Teams, already there. Governor must now ‘set you free’ to help. Will be with you soon!”

Whitmer said the state would investigate the operators of the dams and “pursue every line of legal recourse we have.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said it has directed Boyce Hydro to establish an independent investigation team to determine the cause of the damage to Sanford Dam, and that it would reach out to state officials regarding the Edenville Dam and send a staff engineer to assist with the investigation when it’s safe to do so.

In 2018, the commission revoked the license of the company that operated the Edenville Dam due to non-compliance issues that included spillway capacity and the inability to pass the most severe flood reasonably possible in the area.

In 2018, the state rated the Edenville Dam, which was built in 1924, in unsatisfactory condition. The Sanford Dam, which was built in 1925, received a fair condition rating.

Both dams are being sold.

“This incredible damage requires that we hold people responsible and we are pursuing and going to pursue every line of legal recourse that we can,” Whitmer said. “The initial readout is that this was a known problem for a while and that’s why its important that we do our due diligence.”

There were 19 high hazard dams in unsatisfactory or poor condition in Michigan in 2018, ranking 20th among the 45 states and Puerto Rico for which The Associated Press obtained condition assessments.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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