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Detroit communities in need after "devastating" floods

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Angela Gallegos
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The torrential rain and flooding that struck parts of Metro Detroit on June 26 took a “devastating” toll on some households. That’s especially true in some Detroit communities, where many people lack insurance and there are a large number of low-income, senior, or disabled residents.

That has many leaders in those neighborhoods calling for more assistance from all levels of government. In the meantime, community groups are doing what they can to help people recover.

Donna Givens Davidson, CEO of Detroit’s East Side Community Network, called the flooding “traumatic” for some community members, especially those who have been through multiple flooding events. She said many people face staggering losses.

People need help,” Davidson said. “They need hot water tanks, they need access to electricians, they need skilled trades [people]. They need help not just cleaning out their basements, but sometimes replacing what's in the basements. One person told me that they lost $11,000 worth of construction equipment."

In some cases, that starts with basic clean-up and sanitation, after sewer back-ups swamped thousands of basements. Davidson said there were big inequities from the start.

“The biggest difference was the access to services, to cleanup people,” Davidson said. “A lot of service providers do not drive into Detroit to clean up. They say we don't work in Detroit. So we had a smaller pool to choose from.”

Davidson said the East Side Community Network will be doing a neighborhood survey “so that we can better understand the needs of the people as they come in.” She’s glad that crews from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are in Wayne County this week for preliminary damage assessments that could lead to an eventual presidential disaster declaration and federal relief money.

Davidson said such aid is much-needed, but she worries that those most in need might not get it. That was her experience after a similar flooding event in 2014.

“When FEMA came in, we found that renters did not get the same access to support as homeowners did, and also that people who did not have a lot of documentation had a harder time accessing any of that support,” Davidson said.

Davidson said homeowners may have problems too, noting that many in the community live in longtime family homes without formal ownership.  “In order to qualify for assistance, they have to prove that they have a legitimate ownership stake in the home, which means that we need some cases to be probated and we could use legal support for those people who have unclear ownership status,” she said.

Southwest Detroit was also hit hard by flooding—and for many, a subsequent power outage. That made for a miserable few days, according to Beatriz Chavez, a leader of the mutual aid group Southwest Detroit Community CARE.

We lost power since that Friday night. And we got it again three days later, two or three days later,” Chavez said. “What does that mean? [When] people were flooded, you need power to take that water out, with a pump or something, but you don't have power. It's like, oh, my goodness.

Co-founder Angela Gallegos said Southwest Detroit Community CARE put out a survey in the aftermath asking residents to list their needs, and then got to work.

What we started to do was really get those basements cleaned out for health reasons,” Gallegos said. "We knew there were older people who just needed that. A lot of senior citizens or disabled folks that just can't move around, or don't have a family that can help them because their family got hit, too. So everyone's kind of just lagging behind.”

Gallegos said the next step is to deal with requests for help with government assistance applications that have also been pouring in.  “Our form is in English, Spanish, and Arabic,” she said. “So we can see what they need, and our plan is to go over and try to help them navigate the resources.”

Both Chavez and Gallegos worry that language barriers and a lack of proper documentation could hamper many southwest Detroit residents from getting help they desperately need. “If it's hard for me to figure this [process] out, I already know it's going to be something for our community that's going to be difficult as well,” Gallegos said. “So that's our goal this week, to go through the resources and circle back and help people figure it out.

Donna Givens Davidson is hopeful FEMA aid and other assistance will be easier for Detroiters to access this time around. But she said the continued flooding is taking its toll on her east side community, especially those whose homes are already in poor condition. Simply putting a Band-Aid on the bullet wound that is our broken infrastructure means that it's going to bleed again, and that the damage is going to go beyond repair,” she said.

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