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A Reflection on the May 2020 Collapse of the Edenville Dam

If you asked me to remember what happened on Tuesday, May 19th, 2020, I would tell you a story of moments measured by timestamps.

At 8:30 am, my wake-up alarm went off. On the screen was a severe alert that had come by text at 12:32 am: Imminent Dam Failure, Edenville residents along Sanford and Wixom lake needed to evacuate. My heart leapt up into my throat, and by 8:32 am, I was dressed and showing the alert to my mom, who said it didn’t affect us. I put the worry away.

At 4:57 pm, I logged my hours for my internship for the day and shut down my computer, and went to do a workout video on Youtube with my mom.

At 5:41 pm, the dampened but insistent sound of a severe alert text message coming through interrupted a conversation. The Edenville Dam has failed and is breached.

For an hour, my heart was in my stomach as I texted my friend in Sanford, asking her if she needed help. I refreshed Snapchat and Instagram tens of times, trying to gauge where the damage was. This disaster was for the people in Sanford, whose homes were floating after the complete collapse of the Edenville dam as millions of gallons of water burst the shoreline of Sanford Lake and crept outwards into the floodplain.

At 6:40 pm, as my sister and I sat at the kitchen table with dinner being finished up (meatloaf, black-eyed peas, roasted potatoes) and the echo of a severe alert made us all jump. I don’t know who writes these messages, or how they decide who to send them to, but at 6:40 pm on Tuesday, it was in all-caps: MIDLAND CITY RESIDENTS WEST OF EASTMAN SOUTH OF US-10 NEED TO EVACUATE DUE TO DAM COLLAPSE.

It took 30 seconds to realize where our house was. My brain stopped working. I asked if we should pack go-bags. My mom said we could finish dinner first. It was prepared the same way as it always was (delicious), but tonight it tasted like cardboard. 

I ran downstairs and started skittering around my bedroom with a value calculation raging in my head. It took me less than five minutes to run through every item I owned in the house and decide what couldn’t be replaced. It all fit in one backpack. 

My dad went over to talk to the neighbors and my sister and I drove down Dublin to figure out where the floodwaters started. There were more cars on the road than I had ever seen, even at rush hour, pre-COVID, and they were all turning left: a mass exodus of suburbia away from Sanford. I didn’t realize I was shaking until my sister told me to breathe.

Standing in the driveway as my sister packed her car to head to Toledo to her boyfriend’s house, she gave me a hug and slipped the bracelet off her wrist and onto mine. “To keep you safe,” she said quietly. 

Cramped into the backseat of the car with extra blankets (in case we had to sleep in the car), the sound of the dogs quietly whining filled up my head. We got stuck behind traffic heading out of the evacuation area, traffic so dense it took 20 minutes to go two miles down a quiet residential road. 

Turning onto the interstate heading east and south towards Flint, my dad asked me to turn on a podcast. I did, but nobody listened.

Three people and two dogs with eyes glued to the small TV watched Gretchen Whitmer give an address, watched ABC, NBC, CNN, and Fox speak into the national consciousness the name of a place I always have to point out to people on a map. My boyfriend forwarded me a FEMA alert. The expected crest of the floodwaters was 38 feet, 6 feet higher than the infamous 2017 flood that had destroyed the interstate bridge. I didn’t sleep until 4:30 am and woke up cold at 6 am to the unfamiliar ceiling of the hotel.

The unspoken fear in everyone’s head was the same: please let the Sanford dam hold. Midland was under 10 feet of water, and we tried to figure out if it was safe to come home from whatever we could scrounge from the national news coverage. My boyfriend skirted the road barricades on his bike to see if the road was passable to our house.

It’s hard to see your hometown go underwater. It’s harder to watch your hometown go underwater from miles away, as you watch aerial footage on national news of Tittabawassee river levels so high the stop signs go under, unable to do anything or even to know where the water is. There remains an unbearable sense of guilt in being able to outrun a natural disaster, while thousands of others take shelter in the empty shells of high schools and indoor malls during a pandemic. There remains an even stronger sense of guilt to return to a dry home while less than a half mile down the street, mountains of ruined carpet, furniture, and drywall pile up on the curb and sewage pumps fail. 

During the weeks that followed the collapse of the Edenville dam and the failure of the Sanford dam, the suburbs and city center were a construction zone. A mile away from our house, the floodwaters rendered dozens of houses condemned, with collapsed infrastructure and yellow sheets of paper in the front windows reading: “Danger”, “Condemned”, and “Do Not Enter”. The thousands who ripped out their floors and walls and found mold festering in their swampy lowest level were heartbroken and irate to find that their insurance policies had a tiny clause preventing full coverage in the event of dam collapse. My dad ran into one father, who, helping out his son’s family in Midland, confessed his home in Sanford had been destroyed for the third time in the 20 years he had lived there, and he was moving out.

As the piles of rubble vanished from curbsides all over town, the real estate market turned frenzied; you were hard-pressed to find a nice house outside the floodplain, and everything within the floodplain required extensive, expensive rebuilding to bring them up to newly posed building codes. 

Three months after the water went down, as I drove west on M20 out of Midland, I crossed over Sanford Lake for the first time since the dam failure. Sanford Lake has never been my favorite place - the beaches are a little muddy, the water a little dirty - but it has always been a prime spot for people with boats in the area, with beautiful homes and little piers into the small expanse of water. I had crossed that bridge over the lake a hundred times without thinking, but three months after the water infrastructure that kept the lake filled and the dam held was decimated, it was no longer a lake. The gray stumps of old, dead trees poked out of the lake bed; the piers and docks sat seven feet above dusty, dry ground; fresh, green grass had begun to blanket the pit; and in the very center, a small trickle of water dubbed the Sanford stream ran, a tiny mockery of the massive floodwaters. It was surreal. It was gut-wrenching, bizarre, and surreal (is that 2020’s catchphrase?). 

As all disasters do, the great Midland flood abruptly vanished from the national spotlight within a week. The Great Midland Flood of 2017 came and went, leaving destruction in its wake, and the Great Midland Flood of 2020 (the failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams) is still leaving. The people of Midland and Sanford are strong, and no stranger to water damage. The hundreds of families and businesses who are faced with the massive cost of rebuilding, repairing, and reselling will continue to feel the impacts of this failure to upkeep the dams we took for granted for years to come.


Faye is a Media and Information and Spanish double major at Michigan State University with a minor in Information Technology. Working as a research assistant at the BITLab at CAS MSU, their other passions include dogs, thrifting, and fancy coffee.
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