Heavy rainfall July 16 causes more flooding, basement backups in Pointes

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published July 27, 2021

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GROSSE POINTES — Although the flooding and basement backups in the Grosse Pointes from heavy rains July 16 weren’t nearly as severe or as widespread as they were June 26, that was of little consolation to the residents and businesses again faced with cleaning out basements and replacing ruined drywall and appliances — many for the second time in only three weeks.

City officials have vowed to look into what happened to determine what, if anything, they could have done differently to avert this latest storm-related disaster.

According to the National Weather Service, 1 to 3 inches of rain fell in southeast Michigan on July 16, but higher rain totals were reported in some parts of Wayne County. Grosse Pointe Farms recorded 3.94 inches of rain July 16, while southeast Detroit recorded 3.64 inches of rain.

“Heavy rain and urban flooding were reported across the metro Detroit area, particularly across Wayne County,” the NWS stated on its website. “During this event, Detroit Metropolitan Airport observed 2.20 inches of rainfall, breaking the daily precipitation record for July 16th.”

As was the case during the June 25-26 rain, Grosse Pointe Park appears to have had the most reports of basement backups. At press time, Park City Manager Nick Sizeland said the city had gotten reports of roughly 200 homes that experienced backups July 16; the June storm saw flooding/backups in an estimated 3,000 Park homes, or about 75% of the city’s 4,200 homes. He said there were pockets on the north side of Jefferson Avenue that were hit, but the worst occurred south of Jefferson, along Essex Avenue; the area south of Jefferson is lower than the area north of Jefferson.

“It’s been very tough,” Sizeland said.

Sizeland said all of the Park’s pumps “ran the entire time with no interruptions,” so they don’t know yet what caused backups to occur, although the amount of rainfall is believed to be a major factor. Sizeland said the Park received 3.14 inches of rain in a three-hour period, which falls into the 100-year storm category. For the day, he said the city got a total of 3.79 inches of rain.

Sizeland said they’re working with the city’s engineers and Department of Public Works to determine what happened and if there are any ways the city can remedy the situation.

“These (sewer) systems are designed for 10- or 25-year storms,” Sizeland said.

He said he’s tasked their engineers with “exploring something within the 100-year” range of events, to see if that’s possible, given that these more powerful rainstorms are happening with greater frequency in recent years.

The Park is working with officials in Detroit and the Great Lakes Water Authority to come up with infrastructure improvements, but Sizeland said they’d need state — and likely federal — funding to help pay for a systemwide overhaul.

“We have to prepare for storms that are of great magnitude,” Sizeland said.

In Grosse Pointe City, Mayor Sheila Tomkowiak said the City’s engineers are “working on a range of options” they hope to present to the City Council in September. For Tomkowiak, it’s personal as well as her duty as an elected official; hers was one of the many basements that flooded in June and again July 16, after never flooding before in the home’s nearly 100-year history. Like Sizeland, she said they’re putting pressure on leaders in Lansing and Washington for a regional solution.

“I know the residents want answers, and I do, too,” Tomkowiak said during a July 19 City Council meeting. “Personally, I am frustrated and exhausted.”

Grosse Pointe City Manager Pete Dame said approximately 50 homes in the City experienced flooding July 16; almost 900 homes — or about half of the homes in the City — got flooding in June. He said the City’s pump station was operating properly and there was “no systemwide sanitary system backup” July 16.

“It appears (the ground) was simply saturated with water,” said Dame, who noted that most of the residents who reported water in their basements this time got rainwater in their homes, not sewage. “There’s so much water, there’s nowhere for it to go.”

Dame said all of the homes in the City have separate sanitary and storm lines, except for Grosse Pointe Court and Lakeland Street. He said there are some streets “that are draining very slowly,” so the City is investigating to see if there are any blockages on those streets. However, as a general rule, Dame said “it’s better for (rain) water to be in the street” than flowing rapidly towards the pump station.

“You want to slow the water from getting into the pump station reservoir to avoid the pump station from being overwhelmed,” Dame said.

He said they cleaned all of the catch basins after the June rain event. Dame said most of the City’s sewers were lined or repaired in 2007, which addressed all of the lines that were labeled as critical or important.

Dame thanked Grosse Pointe Shores and Grosse Pointe Woods, both of which sent crews to help the City with cleanup efforts. Dame and other City officials also praised the work of their own DPW during the challenging recent events.

City officials vow to get to the bottom of what caused the problems July 16.

“Nobody has got their head in the sand,” Tomkowiak said. “No one is sitting on their hands. … If there are answers, we’re going to get them — and we will not stop until we do.”

Grosse Pointe Farms was still tallying totals from July 16 backups/flooding, but City Manager Shane Reeside said that, as of mid-July, the city had received well over a dozen calls from residents. In some cases, he said stormwater was entering homes through the foundation because the ground was so saturated.

The Farms has spent $4 million in improvements over the last decade at its Kerby Road Pump Station, as well as millions more on other sewer system upgrades, and Reeside said the city was already in the process of making additional improvements when the recent summer storms took place. About half of the Farms has a separated storm and sanitary sewer system, and Reeside said they plan to start separating some portions of the city’s Inland District, likely starting work this winter. That project is expected to cost $30 million to $35 million, he said.

There were no problems at the Farms pump station July 16, officials said.

“Our pump station worked as designed … and operated throughout the duration of the (storm),” Reeside said.

While they can’t guarantee that basement backups won’t occur again, officials hope to do whatever they can to decrease the likelihood of that.

“Our goal is obviously to mitigate what happened,” Reeside said. “It will take regional as well as local solutions.”

Unusually, heavy rainfall isn’t limited to metro Detroit. The EPA reports that recent years have seen a greater percentage of precipitation “in the form of intense single-day events,” and nine out of the top 10 years with what the EPA defines as “extreme one-day precipitation events” have taken place since 1996. An EPA map shows a 42% increase in “extreme precipitation” across Midwestern states — including Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin — between 1901 and 2016.

Addressing the Grosse Pointe Shores City Council during a meeting by Zoom July 20, Department of Public Works Director Michael Way pointed out the extremity of the two storms by noting that southeast Michigan averages 40 inches of rainfall a year, and the Shores had received 12 inches of rain in just the last three weeks.

Some homes in the Shores experienced basement backups or flooding July 16, but the Shores appears to have been largely spared. Still, Way said Shores Water Supervisor Nick Rudd worked 13 straight hours for the June 25-26 storm, and another 16 straight hours for the July 16 storm.

“We did everything we could to keep damage to a minimum,” Way said.

He thanked Shores officials for approving the purchase of a new pump earlier this year, which “saved a lot of basements.” Although some Shores homes did get water in their basements, the numbers were much lower than they were in other Grosse Pointes.

“By July 1, we were caught up enough (with trash pickup and cleanup) to send mutual aid trucks” to the Farms, City and Park, Way said.

Way praised the DPW staff for going “above and beyond the call of duty … to pick up as much trash as possible” and to do it in an expeditious manner.

Shores City Councilman Matthew Seely — who personally experienced “severe flooding” in his basement — said Way himself “went above and beyond in so many ways.”

“It was unbelievable how well run it was,” Seely continued, commenting on Shores cleanup efforts.

The Great Lakes Water Authority, which said the July 16 storm “began with an intense early rainfall,” issued a statement about its operations that day. It reads, in part: “Since the beginning of the rain today, GLWA’s Water Resource Recovery Facility is operating as designed. The Conner Creek and Freud Pump Stations continue to operate as designed and with available capacity. Water levels at both pump stations have remained well below the levels that would result in basement flooding.”

GLWA said they did experience “an external power quality issue” — but not a total power outage — at the Blue Hill Pump Station in Detroit. However, a map of the Blue Hill station’s service area shows that, while it serves a portion of the east side of Detroit, it doesn’t provide service to the Grosse Pointes or Harper Woods. The latter are served by GWLA’s Conner Creek and Freud pump stations.

Building a sewer system capable of handling a 500-year rain event, or even a 100-year rain event, isn’t just expensive — it’s generally cost-prohibitive, say officials, who estimate that even if they could construct one, the price tag would be, not in the millions, but billions of dollars.

Just to separate storm and wastewater sewer lines throughout the entire GLWA service area was estimated at $17 billion — with $7 billion to $8 billion of that to separate sewers in Detroit alone, GLWA CEO Sue McCormick said. The figures came out of a wastewater master plan GLWA worked on with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, or EGLE, the Michigan Department of Transportation and other partners, McCormick said.

“None of us thought that was feasible,” McCormick said of complete sewer separation.