NewsWeather and Critical Events

Dam failures cause record flooding in central Michigan

About 10,000 people in central Michigan have been asked to evacuate their homes after at least two dams had been breached or broken, causing a major flooding emergency.

For the second time in less than a 24-hour period, families living along the Tittabawassee River and connected lakes in Midland County were ordered on Tuesday evening, May 19, to leave their homes. By Wednesday morning, water that was several feet high covered some streets, parking lots and recreation areas near the river in downtown Midland. As of 7 a.m. May 20, the Sanford Dam had been breached, but had not broken. However, damage in Sanford was evident.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency in Midland County late Tuesday night, urging residents to go to higher ground as water levels were rapidly rising. She said downtown Midland, a city of 42,000 about 8 miles downstream from the Sanford Dam, faced an especially serious flooding threat, and a Dow Chemical Company plant sits on the city’s riverbank.

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

“This is unlike anything we’ve seen in Midland County,” added Whitmer. ”If you have a family member or loved one who lives in another part of the state, go there now.”

As of 9:45 Wednesday morning, the Tittabawassee River at Midland was nearly 35 feet high, well past its flood stage of 24 feet, breaking the record of 33.9 feet. The National Weather Service (NWS) is forecasting the river to crest at 38 feet Wednesday evening, remaining at major flood stage until Friday, May 22.

SONAR Critical Events: Dam breaches in central Michigan, May 20, 2020.

Emergency responders went door-to-door early Tuesday to warn people living near the Edenville Dam of the rising water. Some residents were able to return home, only to be told to leave again following the dam break several hours later. The evacuations include the towns of Edenville, Sanford and parts of Midland, according to Selina Tisdale, spokeswoman for Midland County.

It’s been very wet in this region over the past week, with more than 5 inches of total rainfall at the nearby MBS International Airport (ICAO code: MBS), almost half of that on Tuesday. The weather was too much for the dams to handle, but there is one silver lining  – there’s no rain in the forecast the next few days, with only occasional showers possibly returning this weekend.

Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.