Remembering the ‘great flood’

Officials reflect on last summer’s deluge

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published August 14, 2015


MADISON HEIGHTS/HAZEL PARK — It’s been more than a year now since the historic storm of Aug. 11, 2014. Rain blasted the metro Detroit area, and in mere hours, I-75 in Hazel Park was a deep river, and Civic Center Plaza in Madison Heights was a lake. The vehicles that weren’t underwater were carried off with the stream — as happened to Hazel Park Mayor Jan Parisi’s car — and municipal buildings and residential homes alike suffered flooding and unsanitary conditions.

Once the vast volume of water started to drain, there came the Herculean task of hauling away waterlogged trash and cleaning out sewage. Waste contractors, inundated with demand from multiple cities, struggled to keep pace with the piles growing at the curb. It led to a tense situation in Madison Heights when SOCRRA dumped trash from other cities at the old incinerator without letting the city know, creating an open-air dump in the middle of the city.

In Hazel Park, where Parisi was the first mayor in the area to declare a state of emergency, residents and city employees pulled together to pick up the slack when Tringali Sanitation, the city’s waste contractor, found itself unable to get to them in time.

“We were facing a serious public health crisis, so we did what we always do — we pulled together and started dealing with the problem,” said Ed Klobucher, city manager of Hazel Park.

They used anything they could find to haul away trash, including three dump trucks loaned by the Oakland County Road Commission. It was an all-hands-on-deck situation for city staff, with everyone from secretaries on through public safety and other personnel getting their hands dirty. And the residents and businesses did their part, quickly taking their trash to the curb.

“And it wasn’t just inconvenient for us with the trash. We also had to deal with what were serious life-and-death situations, since I-75 runs through the middle of the city and had become a very deep river,” Klobucher said. “Our Fire Department had to rope-rescue some people stranded on top of their cars.”

Congressman Sander Levin visited Hazel Park to survey the damage, and the city received praise for its efforts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Klobucher said support was strong at all levels of government — county, state and federal.

“I’m often complaining about upper levels of government and how they fail the communities, but in this case, everyone did good work,” Klobucher said. “It was just an otherworldly situation. The whole regional system was inundated. Rain like that will overwhelm any system of drainage on this planet. There is no system designed to absorb that much rainfall that quickly.”

Jeff Campbell, Hazel Park’s assistant city manager and community development director, said FEMA helped a great deal with providing relief. He also thanked the Michigan State Police’s emergency unit for its help during the flood.

“FEMA was very responsive, not only to the city’s cost, but they provided money for our residents, easing a lot of their anger and suffering,” Campbell said. “Residents had their ping-pong tables and pool tables turned to junk, and the relief wouldn’t cover everything, but it could still help with the furnace, washer and dryer, and so on.”

Numbers provided by FEMA show that Oakland County had more than 18,900 registrations for individual assistance as a result of the flood, totaling nearly $20.8 million in awarded assistance.

In Macomb County, there were more than 11,000 registrations, totaling more than $12.6 million in awarded assistance. And in Wayne County, there were more than 98,300 registrations and more than $122.1 million in awarded assistance. 

In addition, FEMA paid nearly $12 million in aid to public and nonprofit entities for emergency services and infrastructure repair or replacement.

Recovery efforts continue this summer, with state resources available for those facing the lingering effects of property damage, and the dirty work of cleaning out basements that filled with water a year ago and may now be ripe for mold.

“It’s all about connecting people who need help with people who want to help them,” said Ginna Holmes, executive director of the Michigan Community Service Commission (MCSC), the state’s lead agency for volunteers working in the wake of the flood. “Statistically, this disaster was the largest disaster in the United States for FEMA response last year. People did not know that.”

Holmes said the problems didn’t end once the water receded and the trash was taken away. Work remains to clear abandoned homes where the basements are still flooded, and to clean once-flooded areas that have been left in dangerously unsanitary conditions. Those still affected by flooding can call 211 for assistance, and those wishing to volunteer are also encouraged to get involved.

“Our concern is that there are people that still have needs,” Holmes said. “We need to help them find resources.”

In Madison Heights, the city helped its residents by organizing the Neighbors Helping Neighbors fundraising campaign, which collected money for those affected. It was just one of many ways that the community pulled together. 

“The 300-plus-year storm and flood … was a historic event that Madison Heights has never seen before, and hopefully may never see again,” said Ben Myers, city manager of Madison Heights, in an email. “But the event also brought out the best in Madison Heights.”

He praised the prompt response of the city’s Department of Public Services, and how the city effectively coordinated disaster relief with county, state and federal agencies.

“As a result, I would say we are better prepared going forward,” Myers said. 

Joseph Vitali, director of public services for Madison Heights, described the toll that the storm took on the city. Fifteen city vehicles were deemed a total loss. City Hall and the 43rd District Court had flooding in their basements. Just last month, the city finally completed restoration of the city buildings affected by the flood, including inventory that had to be replaced.

“I have worked for the city for 14 years and have learned to always expect the unexpected and prepare the best you can,” Vitali said in an email. “I have witnessed firsthand the major windstorm of Labor Day 2011 that caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage throughout Madison Heights, and the record snowfall of winter 2013-14. But I could not have imagined something as damaging as the great flood of 2014. At the end of the day, we have persevered, and are all better because of it.”

Staff Writer Brian Louwers contributed to this report and can be reached at (586) 498-1089.