The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built this dike to stem the flood waters along Lake St. Clair. Although the dike is not finished in this photograph circa 1973-74, large waves can be seen crashing up against it, causing little to no damage.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built this dike to stem the flood waters along Lake St. Clair. Although the dike is not finished in this photograph circa 1973-74, large waves can be seen crashing up against it, causing little to no damage.

Photo provided by the St. Clair Shores Historical Commission


Looking back on the 1970s flooding in St. Clair Shores

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published May 23, 2019

 This aerial image of 29918 Jefferson Ave. from November 1972 shows the rising water level.

This aerial image of 29918 Jefferson Ave. from November 1972 shows the rising water level.

Photo provided by the St. Clair Shores Historical Commission

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — As the water rose along the banks of Lake St. Clair this spring, it led some residents to recall when high water levels caused residents to need boats to get out of their homes and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to erect a semi-permanent barrier against the rising tide.

Rosemary DiMaria, of St. Clair Shores, said that her nephew’s friend can’t get his boat out in Clinton Township because the high water level won’t allow the vessel to pass under a bridge on a canal of the Clinton River. But when she was younger, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she had a friend who couldn’t get out of his house in a car. He lived on the lake side of 10 Mile Road and Jefferson Avenue.

“He used to take a rowboat to Jefferson and his friends would pick him up,” she said. “My dad delivered mail there too, and because he couldn’t get in there, people had to go and pick up their mail from the post office.”

A girlfriend who lived along the lake had a large berm erected along her yard, DiMaria recalled, but “people got a little comfortable and they just decided they were going to take them down,” she said.

The dike and sandbag barrier was part of Operation Foresight, a project developed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1973. According to a New York Times article from Feb. 25, 1973, “Great Lakes shore towns await ‘flood of the century,’” by William K. Stevens, the corps distributed thousands of sandbags to lakeside communities and also built dikes to block the waters.

Three straight years of abnormally high rainfall raised Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair to their highest levels — 2 feet and more above average, 5 and 6 feet above past low-water marks — since record-keeping began in 1860.

That also caused the highest waters along Lake Michigan and Lake Huron since 1900, and Lake Ontario was expected to reach near-record-high levels that spring.

“At first we had a hard time making people realize that this wasn’t some abstract projection,” then-St. Clair Shores City Engineer Marlin Sumner said in a Feb. 21, 1973, St. Clair Shores Community News story, “Flood program gains support,” by Craig Piechura. “A lot of people figured it was a pretty remote chance that flooding was going to happen. But as the lake continued to rise even during December when it traditionally goes down, people started asking, ‘How can I help?’”

In the same report, Sumner said that Lake St. Clair was at a higher level than it was when St. Clair Shores had its prior worst flooding, in 1896.

In early February, according to “Canal closings OK’d,” by Doris Yata, in an undated edition of the St. Clair Shores Community News from 1973, the City Council voted to close seven canals by filling in their openings to Lake St. Clair and pumping 12-18 inches of water out of them. The closed canals included those between Clairwood and Liberty streets, between 10 Mile Road and Beach Street, between Beach and Maple streets, between Maple and Benjamin streets, at the end of Benjamin Street, between Benjamin and Statler streets, and between Statler and Madison streets. A project to sandbag along canals at Milner and Alexander streets was undertaken at the same time.

Residents of several canals sued the city over the closure of their canals, but by the fall of 1973, St. Clair Shores was better prepared for storms, according to then-Assistant City Manager L. A. Crouchman in the Sept. 19, 1973, St. Clair Shores Community News article, “Lake diking prepares city for fall storms,” by Marcia Abramson.

With St. Clair Shores protected by sandbag barriers in canal areas and with concrete and wood crib dikes on the shoreline directly exposed to rolling waves off the lake, Crouchman said, “The cribs are 5 feet higher than the water is now, and there are no breaks in the dike. It’s continuous throughout St. Clair Shores.

“We hope we can control the water. We’ve done everything we can. But a strong east wind could put those waves up 18 feet.”

St. Clair Shores wasn’t the only Michigan community working with the Army Corps, according to the Feb. 21, 1973, St. Clair Shores Community News story, “Flood program gains support,” by Craig Piechura, which stated, “From Monroe to Algonac, residents are bracing for spring floodwaters by laying down Corps-designed sandbag dikes.”

Then-Mayor Frank McPharlin said that the city was seeking bids from contractors to build dikes along 5 miles of coastline in accordance with the Army Corps of Engineers plans, which he hoped would be completed by April 1973, as stated in the March 21, 1973 St. Clair Shores Community News article, “April deadline set for dike completion,” by Doris Yata.

High water marks that year were recorded at 577 feet, according to the Great Lakes Coastal Flood Study of Lake St. Clair by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in February 2013. In 1973, and again in 1985 and 1986, when the high water marks were recorded at the same level, that was when the most damaging floods occurred in St. Clair Shores.

Some of the worst damage from the spring 1985 storms, however, was caused by water flowing through gaps in the dikes built by the Army Corps of Engineers under Operation Foresight in 1973-74, “which were subsequently lowered or removed in the late 1970s by some residents to facilitate access to Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie,” according to FEMA. The report states that the 1985 storms caused about $4.7 million in damages across Macomb County, with flood damage to 985 homes and 31 businesses.

Linda Manning, of St. Clair Shores, said that her friend’s father lived on Milner Street in 1973.

“He was right on the canal,” she said. “I think he was kind of stuck. I don’t think you could get on Jefferson at all with a car — it was that deep.”

Shellie Gambino-Foss, of St. Clair Shores, still recalls the dikes, which were up when she was 10 and 11 years old.

“We could never see the lake. Anytime you drove along Jefferson,” she said. “We didn’t see it for years.”

She grew up on Grossdale Street, a block west of the lake, but anytime she went to visit her grandparents on Alexander Street, they would take a car or bike along Jefferson Avenue.

“When (the dikes) came down, it was just so beautiful. I remember finally being able to see past those things,” she said.

By the time she was older and her school took field trips to Veterans Memorial Park, Gambino-Foss said that the dikes had been taken down.

“It was a good thing they had them up now. I think it’s too late at this point,” she said.

City Manager Mike Smith said that, most likely, what is left of the dikes, berms and sandbags erected in the 1970s is protecting St. Clair Shores more from this year’s high water levels.

“When you go out and look at some of these properties, you see those hills,” he said. “That’s the leftovers from the dikes.”

If he had a house on the lake, when the sandbags are no longer needed, “I would get 4 inches of topsoil and cover them up and plant seed,” he suggested. “It’s going to do this. It’s going to go up; it’s going to go down.”

That doesn’t mean St. Clair Shores is in the clear, though, he said.

“Next year, who knows? Because we don’t want to make assumptions (about) what the water’s going to do.”

Special thanks to St. Clair Shores Public Library archivist Heidi Christein for her assistance in researching this story.

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