The city of Detroit has promised to step up its response to persistent flooding in the Jefferson Chalmers area, but some residents think it’s too little, too late.
The low-lying neighborhood on the city’s far east side is crossed with canals that feed into the Detroit River. Record-high water levels and persistent rain have caused those canals to spill over onto adjoining properties and streets, flooding homes, streets, and creating hazards like sinkholes.
It’s also left some residents frustrated with what they call an inadequate response.
On Wednesday, the city declared an emergency so that workers could enter private properties to re-enforce sandbag walls that have been the focus of a city-led flood prevention effort since May. The city had previously relied on homeowners and volunteers to place the sandbags in areas where seawalls have been breached.
And while the city is trying to pump water out, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has also “blocked catch basins in some areas away from homes that don’t significantly impact the public,” according to a city-issued statement.
“At this point this is not just about protecting people’s homes and personal property. That is a major focus, but it’s also about reducing the demand on our wet weather pumping and treatment facilities,” said DWSD Director Gary Brown.
“Our system has performed beautifully given the extraordinary demand, but we have to alleviate the pressure from the river before we have more wet weather and our ability to collect and process sewage is either reduced or eliminated for a period of time.”
Some Jefferson Chalmers residents say the area’s overtaxed drainage system is a longstanding problem, and the city’s response so far—mainly focused on sandbagging and telling residents it’s their responsibility to build proper seawalls—has been inadequate.
Sandbags are washing out of some yards along Ashland Street, where Darryl Arnold and Ramon Cobb are fixing up a house. A sinkhole has opened up alongside the sidewalk in the front yard. DWSD had put up caution tape, but Cobb pointed out that a child could easily fall in and drown.
As water poured out of the canals, over driveways and into the street, and fish swam along the deluged canal barrier in the muck-filled backyard, Arnold said this actually isn’t the worst it’s been. “I seen a duck swimming last week in the front, there was so much water,” he said.
Arnold says they’re planning to put up a seawall, but for now can’t even drive a truck into the backyard because of the mud. He and Cobb were both skeptical that more sandbags will do much to keep the water out, especially because the river and canals may not crest for weeks.
“They want you to believe that they’re taking care of it, but what they’re doing is putting a band-aid on it. They’re not fixing it. It’s a big band-aid,” Cobb said.
Blake Grannum is also skeptical that more sandbags will be effective. Her family’s canal-front home has a seawall, but has still had more than three feet of water in the basement for about two weeks. They don’t have hot water, and Grannum says she’s concerned about the health impacts of so much stagnant water.
“I’m worried about the water illnesses that are not just going to affect my street, but the entire neighborhood,” Grannum said. “Mold is insane. It’s just sitting water.”
Grannum says chronically inadequate infrastructure is contributing to the problem, but the city hadn’t been responsive to repeated pleas for help until residents took their complaints to social media.
“It’s bigger than the environment. This is a horrible system, and it shouldn’t just be the residents’ and the citizens’ responsibility to handle this,” Grannum said.
“I just want them to come in and help us solve this problem. It can be solved. I don’t care about blaming anybody anymore. I just want to keep moving on with our lives.”
The city said its redoubled sandbagging effort will begin Thursday. Residents who remove the sandbags can be prosecuted and fined. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also been surveying the area.
Detroit Chief Operating Officer Hakim Berry said the bags may be inconvenient for some residents, but that “the stakes, along with the water levels, are becoming higher.”