A note from Mary Ann: When I asked Angela last week to write this blog, the flooding in Midland was the biggest story in Michigan news. In addition to having a team member live in Midland, SPR serves many clients in the area, and I wanted to share Angela’s firsthand perspective of managing a crisis during a crisis. Protests in Detroit, Grand Rapids and across the state prompted me to pause. As we continue to come together as a community to make sense of what has happened, much more is sure to be written. As Angela reminds us, this, too, is an “And” situation that requires our focus and attention.
Facing a ‘crisis within a crisis’ becomes normal
This is not another blog post about the pandemic.
Well, in a way it is. Because this dwarfed the pandemic for us. For awhile.
You see, 11,000 people from the Midland area recently had to evacuate their homes quickly. During a pandemic. When we’ve been told for more than 10 weeks to remain physically distant from each other.
How do you evacuate in a pandemic? Do you occupy the beds, couches, kitchens and showers of family and friends? Do you go to a hotel (if you can find one open)? Do you go to one of several public evacuation centers that have opened up and test people at the door? Do you spend the night in your car, on higher and drier ground, using public restrooms and drive-thru restaurants? What about the next night, and the one after that?
Check “all of the above.” And try to avoid COVID-19.
A new crisis: heavy rain and breeched dams
The facts speak for themselves. Midland County’s Tittabawassee River has four dams that create four lakes. Having made Midland my home for 36 years, I know the river’s flood stage is 24 feet. And the heavy rains of May 17 and 18 came with predictions the river would crest anywhere from 33 to 38 feet. It was going to be a big one.
Ultimately, the river crested at 35 feet, as there was a complete failure of one dam and the partial failure of another. Suddenly 21.5 billion gallons of water from Wixom Lake were sent downstream into the towns of Sanford and Midland. Too much water. Everywhere.
Miraculously, everyone survived. There was not one casualty. For more on how that happened, read below.
Some homes along Wixom and Sanford lakes have been washed downstream and have landed in the town’s commercial district. Docks that dotted the shoreline are now matchsticks gathered along Sanford Dam. Hundreds of lakefront homes, along with those on Midland’s west side, were flooded with feet of water in the basement and on the main floor. Many, many family homes – which have never had water before — have been condemned. Washers and dryers, televisions, cabinets and drywall sat in piles taller than their homeowners, stretching the length of their property.
As people rushed to help, the pandemic suddenly took a back seat. Like so many, we now juggle more than one crisis at a time.
We abandoned physical distancing to come together to pump out basements, to muck out mud and substances far worse. To carry sodden books and Christmas ornaments to the curb. To empty out kitchens so a demolition crew can do its work. To do laundry for our friends and strangers. To provide food and water.
The flood did not discriminate. It destroyed apartments, mobile homes and small cottages. It destroyed gems of midcentury modern architecture. It hit the neighborhood where we raised our two sons and where our closest friends still live. It hit retiree condos and small businesses.
Since May 20, we’ve come together to cry, to hug, to work, to support. We’ve worn our masks, but there are times we just can’t any longer. We’ve tried to be as careful as possible.
People come together when a new crisis calls
Because we came together, the county department of public health hosted free drive-thru COVID-19 testing for two days, in conjunction with Michigan’s National Guard, State Police and Department of Health and Human Services offices. In addition, the department is hosting public clinics, for Tdap and for Hepatitis A vaccines. We hope we’re not facing a new crisis of a COVID-19 hot spot.
As in countless examples throughout the pandemic, Midland County didn’t replace one crisis with another. We have flooding AND homelessness AND financial ruin AND a town destroyed AND potential flood-related diseases. AND a pandemic.
AND, we have hope. We know we are better than any of these crises and we will get through this – “with a little help from our friends,” to quote the Beatles. Because it’s not a choice of flood recovery or a pandemic.
It’s both. It’s AND.
Effective Communications Saves Lives
The communications efforts of our city and county emergency operations teams saved lives. Although 11,000 people had to evacuate their homes quickly, there were no casualties.
Think about that for a minute: no casualties.
As a communications professional, I gather information from many trusted sources before making decisions. But others do not have a high “need to know” like I do. In a crisis, every possible communications channel needs to be used to reach people who can be affected.
What Midland did well
Here are some of the life-saving crisis communications techniques I witnessed during our flood:
- Most valuable: Midland County uses Nixle® to broadcast free public safety alerts to cell phone users who opt in. In the 10 days between May 16 and 26, I received 65 flood-related Nixle texts. Content included the anticipated flood stages, “imminent danger” warnings when the dams failed, highway and road closures. The first text alert was for a flood watch on May 16, the day before the first raindrop fell.
- Midland County also published the Nixle text alerts on Facebook and Twitter.
- The federal Emergency Alert System broadcasts to cell phones, radio and television stations were appropriately used several times. No one can miss the heart-stopping sound of these.
- Facebook and Twitter posts by both our city and county governments were frequent and factual.
- The Michigan State Police and local fire departments went door-to-door telling citizens to evacuate – multiple times.
- Joint press briefings by our city and county were broadcast via Facebook Live.
- Visually, we saw orange barrels staged at flood-prone streets a day or two before the rain fell, a powerful warning that those streets were expected to flood.
- A hydrograph on the National Weather Service’s website was very helpful for knowing the river level, whether it had crested and when it was receding. There is a link to it from our county’s 911 website.
- Word of mouth. You cannot underestimate the value of people notifying neighbors, family and friends in a crisis.