Weather wasn’t kind to Detroit in 2021. In late June, Detroit experienced a 100-year flood event, followed by three tornadoes that threw salt in a still–gaping wound. In mid-July, the city flooded again, and on August 11, extreme weather caused power outages across metro Detroit for nearly one million people. These disasters damaged homes and vehicles and brought sewage up into basements and waterways. Photos of highways turned into rivers quickly dominated local news and social media.
Massive flooding has occured at least four times in Detroit since 2016, according to Bridge Michigan. The last 100-year storm was in 2014. Although floods like this statistically have only a 1% chance of occurring each year according to historical data, in recent years, their actual frequency has been much higher.
“What we refer to as the five hundred-year storm, the .2% storm, is becoming more like the 100-year storm,” Richard Norton, professor of urban and regional environmental planning at the University of Michigan, said. “These increasing storm events mean more and more, we’re not able to deal with a storm every so often that happens because it’s happening too frequently,” Norton said.
But it’s not just the extreme rain events that are causing problems for Detroiters. The city’s residents experience household flooding even when rainfall is within normal limits, according to a report titled “Household Flooding in Detroit,” published by Wayne State University in collaboration with the University of Michigan and environmental organizations.
“A lot of times the media picks up on when there’s a huge event, but it’s not actually capturing that people are dealing with this on a regular basis,” Natalie Sampson, one of the co-authors of the study and associate professor of public health at UM-Dearborn, said. “Unfortunately I think the latest paper that a group of us did was way too timely and relevant, and I wish it wasn’t.”
“What we found was that flooding was ubiquitous throughout Detroit,” Peter Larson, who led the survey study, said. “More than 65% of the households that were surveyed reported either being flooded through rainfall or sewer backups, and the vast majority of them suffered severe economic impacts.”
Flood Factor, a not-for-profit flood risk assessment tool, found that 40,757 properties are already at risk of flooding in Detroit, and in 30 years, about 42,688 are predicted to be at risk. Flood damages cost Detroit $4.6 million in 2021, according to the site.
“If you go to Detroit on any given day, and you start asking around, it’s not hard to find somebody [who] can tell you they have like an inch of water in their basement regularly,” Larson said.
Flooding hot spots
The Wayne State study identified some particular “hot spot” areas for flooding, such as the Jefferson Chalmers area, which Larson said was originally built over a marsh that was drained for development. Flooding, however, was not restricted to one area, especially during the extreme flood event in June.
“In this paper, what we were hoping to show is this is not just one neighborhood,” Sampson said. “This is across the city, this is multiple neighborhoods — we know it’s across the region, too.”
And although aging infrastructure is a common scapegoat, the problem is more widespread than just throughout older parts of the city.
“We assumed that older households would be at higher risk for flooding and then as buildings got newer, they’d have a lower risk of flooding,” Larson said. “We found that sort of not true. Old homes are at high risk for flooding, but we also found that newer homes are at equal risk for flooding.”
Larson says the reason for this is that developers are building in flood plains. Homes along the Detroit River are more at risk, but as the outer suburbs of Detroit saw a population influx from the 1950s onward during the city’s economic decline, undeveloped land became more scarce.
Beyond the unstrategic location of these homes along the river and in flood basins, Detroit infrastructure is just not built to handle extreme storms. Much of Detroit water infrastructure has not been updated for decades, and is built in a way that combines floodwater with wastewater.
“Detroit is somewhat unique in that it has a combined sewer outflow system,” Larson said. “When the same infrastructure that diverts rainwater when it comes in also is the infrastructure that diverts sewage, then you have serious sewer backups. We found even among new structures, sewer backups are serious problems. So there’s two things at once: buildings are going into areas that are at risk for flooding; and then there’s the wider infrastructure that’s continuing to put the entire city at risk.”
Effects of Climate Change
“Climate change has had a lot to do with the increase in flooding and the extreme nature of the flooding in the last decade or so,” Richard Rood, professor of climate and engineering at University of Michigan, said. “If you look at the precipitation record, we’ve seen all across the United States — but especially in the Great Lakes region and in New England and, of course, in southern Canada — an increase in the total amount of precipitation. We’ve also seen an increase in extreme precipitation. And I think that this acceleration of the water cycle is quite closely related to the increasing temperatures. So there’s an incremental effect that comes from [global] warming.”
Extreme storms, defined as two or more inches of precipitation per day, increased 128% from 1964 to 2014 in Michigan, according to the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization.
Furthermore, Rood says, floods saturate the ground with water, so it takes less rainfall for it to flood again. And in the summers, increased transport of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico to the Midwest makes it wetter as the Gulf warms.
“In the Great Lakes region, the projections are that we’re going to get wetter over time,” Norton said. “We’re going to have longer periods of drought punctuated by more extreme storm events, not unlike what just happened in [Ann Arbor and Detroit], and when you get those extreme events, cities like Detroit in general don’t have the infrastructure that has the capacity to handle all that influx of water.”
Of course, climate change is still a controversial term in national politics.
“If you take out the words climate change and just talk to people about what’s happening, they’ll readily acknowledge that seasons are changing, [they are] getting more rain events, et cetera, that are all of the symptoms of climate change — they just won’t put the label on it,” Norton said. “I think the flooding Detroit has been experiencing in combination with the other things that are happening around the country is starting to shift people’s perception.”
As the climate changes, so, too, do ways of living.
“I think one of the things that’s important is that this is going to continue,” Rood said. “And so you have to think about how to adapt to it. The way we built things 30 and 50 years ago, we have a different climate now, and we’re going to have a different climate again in another 30 to 50 years. So there’s a challenge [in our] way of thinking about, ‘How are you going to adapt to these changing characteristics of water?’”
The recent Wayne State paper and associated studies added to existing research on the public health effects of household flooding. “Recurrent Home Flooding in Detroit, MI 2012–2020: Results of a Household Survey,” led by Larson, found an association between flooding and adult and child asthma: 74% of participants in the survey reported at least one adult in their household who had diagnosed asthma.
Floods can cause mold growing undetected in damp floors and walls, leading to serious health problems such as headaches, eye irritation, sneezing and skin rashes. Power outages can cause illness from extreme heat without air conditioning during the summer months, or extreme cold without heat in the winter. Furthermore, injuries or death can result when people try to rescue possessions from the storm.
Extreme flooding can also affect psychological health, such as “anxiety, depression, fear of further loss of housing or economic assets or increased disease risks, and trauma from extreme flooding events,” according to Larson.
“I think also what we overlook — and unfortunately it doesn’t always drive policy — is just the psychological distress from ‘I can’t go to work’ or ‘I can’t get my kids to school’ or ‘I’m trying to figure out [if] am I still being exposed to mold’ or ‘Do I need to buy a new furnace?’” Sampson said. “The economic stress and the social stress of that is huge, and that has major public health implications, especially when it’s not the only thing you’re stressed about, but it’s on top of other stressors.”
The state of Michigan’s 2022-2023 fiscal year executive budget introduced the MI Clean Water Plan: $290 million of one-time state funding that will support grants for clean drinking water as well as wastewater infrastructure projects to tackle issues such as sewer overflows, public health risks and failing septic systems. Combined with federal funding, the total budget of the Clean Water Plan is $500 million, $293 million of which will go toward wastewater management and $3 million toward stormwater grants. The state estimates that this plan will create 7,500 new jobs. Another $40 million of state funding will go toward high water infrastructure grants and another $15 million for a Dam Safety Emergency Fund. These are all one-time programs that will not be automatically renewed for 2023.
The governor’s 2021 State of the State water infrastructure fact sheet acknowledged that analyses have shown the state has an investment gap of $800 million annually “to fully upgrade the state’s water infrastructure.” The Clean Water Plan would fill some of this reported gap, but only for one year.
Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) conversely estimates that the Southeast Michigan region needs at least $3.4 billion annually to improve water infrastructure to 100% good/fair condition.
The local government also plays a role, although according to Norton, it is not always clear which level of authority is responsible for each type of infrastructure.
“It’s a very fragmented system,” Norton said, speaking from experience in urban planning. “And so there’s a whole lot of talking past each other and fragmentation and lack of clarity about who should be responsible for what.”
The city of Detroit spends 29% of its annual budget on water and sewage, according to the city.
“I think that the city is accountable for the use of the funds that are coming in,” Sampson said. “The key is to be transparent.”
Racial and economic inequity
A study by UC Berkeley found that Detroit’s Water and Sewage Department has a long history of redlining: granting public investment in water infrastructure development to wealthy, primarily white neighborhoods over minority neighborhoods that were deemed “hazardous” investments. This division of neighborhoods by investment value — and the subsequent funding that these neighborhoods did or did not receive — has lasting effects on infrastructure today.
“That’s the question: why hasn’t Detroit’s water infrastructure been upgraded? And I think that the answer to that is pretty easy to find given Detroit’s history of racial exclusion and marginalisation both in [local] government and federal government,” Larson said. “Governments aren’t necessarily interested in putting money into primarily poor and African American areas of the country.”
The city of Detroit is 78% Black as of 2019, according to the Census Bureau. When the outer suburbs are included in the metro area, that demographic changes to 66% white.
“There are huge equity implications if the folks who are living in those places are minority populations [and] lower income,” Norton said. “That was a huge issue in New Orleans a few years back after Katrina, [where] some of the neighborhoods that were hit the hardest were the African American neighborhoods and they lived there because they were the last places available to be bought because everybody knew they were hazardous places to be. So if your solution is to say you should move away, [and] they’re the folks who have always had to move [and] they’ve been treated poorly, is that really fair? At the same time, does it make sense to keep rebuilding and then keep watching these places get flooded?”
Wealthier residents are also just better equipped to deal with the after effects of flooding, such as repairing damages, draining and cleaning basements, seeing the doctor for any health effects, dealing with power and internet outages and making damage claims. For people already facing financial distress, even a less extreme flood can put them over budget. And given the expense of upgrading their homes or moving, low-income residents may have no choice but to wait until the next flood.
“I think that the disparities will continue to persist and get worse if we’re not facing it head on,” Sampson said.
The Wayne State paper detailed possible solutions to Detroit’s regular flooding problems, including infrastructure updates, priority to the most affected areas, maintenance of vacant lots and structures, improved process for making damage claims, further research on flooding hotspots, methods to hold landlords accountable and programs to help households with flood-prevention plumbing systems. Infrastructure includes grey infrastructure, or human-made engineering, and green infrastructure, or vegetation designed to capture stormwater.
“Green infrastructure can take the burden off of that [heavy rainfall] if we can plant native species,” Sampson said. “There [are] beautiful rain gardens and vegetative gardens and bioswales all over the region.”
A number of community and environmental organizations in Detroit have already been making some of these changes on a local level. Groups like Friends of the Rouge, Detroit Future City, Sierra Club Michigan and Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision have done work in building community rain gardens, restoring riverbeds, advocating in City Council and educating residents on stormwater retention strategies.
“Climate justice leaders and folks on the ground have been sounding this alarm for a long time and throwing solutions out and coming up with community solutions that are working,” Sampson said. “So I think those who have decision-making power and access to this funding need to be listening to those suggestions and implementing those solutions.”