While much of the U.S. worried about the dangerous and dramatic heat wave hitting the West, Detroit faced rising floodwaters. Nearly 17.8 centimetres of rain fell in some areas of metro Detroit on Friday night, wreaking havoc on infrastructure and flooding businesses and major highways. It’s a case study in how the climate crisis can create overlapping catastrophes, ones that can often stretch out limits of attention as the weather becomes more erratic.
The sudden flooding hit after inches of rain fell in just a few hours on Friday, hitting the city’s highways and roads especially hard. Michigan State Police said they responded to hundreds of calls about the flooded roads. One firefighter told a local FOX station that around 1,000 cars were abandoned or submerged in the floodwaters and that two fire trucks responding to emergency calls Friday and Saturday had to be towed. Some drivers trying to brave the waters, police said, had to abandon their cars and swim to safety off the highway. (Please note you should never, ever drive on a flooded roadway. Half of all flood-related drownings happen when people drive into floodwaters.)
The deluge also caught the area by surprise; local forecasters had only predicted up to 5.1 centimetres. According to a tool from the National Weather Service, a 3-hour rainfall exceeding 13 centimetres is a 1-in-500 year event. While no attribution has done the Detroit rainfall, research has shown that heavy downpours are becoming more common as the planet heats up.
“What we can say with some confidence is that we know the atmosphere is warmer, so the water cycle is supercharged,” said Sean Sublette, a meteorologist at Climate Central. “So when we do have weather patterns that support heavy rain, the rain is going to be heavier.”
Sublette showed me a chart produced by Climate Central, demonstrating how the Detroit area has seen the number of days with 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) of precipitation or more have slowly crept up since the 1950s.
“When you’ve got a warmer atmosphere, you’re evaporating more because it’s warmer. In a warm room versus a cool room, a glass of water evaporates more, right?” he said. “We’re putting more water into the atmosphere. When we put more water up there, when a storm forms, that means more rain is going to come down. The same type of storm is going to produce more rainfall than it has in the past. If the weather pattern says we’re going to get [7.6 centimetres] of rain, that weather pattern might have put down [7.6 centimetres] of rain 40 or 50 years ago, and now it’d put down [8.9 centimetres]. The numbers all nudge up a little bit.”
And as we’re seeing in Detroit, that heavier rain can wreak havoc on cities that are not prepared for stresses on their infrastructure. Gov. Gretchen Wilmer on Saturday declared a state of emergency for Wayne County, and the city is seeking federal disaster assistance for the cleanup.
“With an extraordinary event like this, there is a significant amount of rain elevating water in the system, which is now returning to normal levels,” Gary Brown, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, said at a press conference Saturday, as he warned that the city’s sewage system was close to its breaking point. “We are aware that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Detroiter households have experienced water in their basements and sewer backups.”
Brown said in a press release that the rain is “another example of global warming and how our infrastructure needs to expand to meet these weather changes.” Dozens of residents of the Jefferson Chalmers neighbourhood interviewed Saturday by local news stations said their homes and basements had been flooded. Some reported watching furniture and garbage cans float away and fridges toppling over, spoiling food; others said they had been waiting on hold with the city’s crisis line for hours.
Charmane Neal is the executive director of Hey Y’all Detroit, a grassroots community group supporting families throughout the Detroit metro area with food access, literacy programs, and other needs. She called me from her home Monday, where she runs Hey Y’all, in the middle of crowdsourcing help for around 80 families, most living below the poverty line. In the short term, Neal said she’s been getting bundles of food and other supplies together, but the families she helps also have serious long-term needs.
“Out of 80 families, only two families have homeowners’ or renters’ insurance,” she said. “A lot of them are not educated in this realm of things.” Neal said she spent the night putting together a last-minute resource sheet on low-cost homeowners’ insurance and policies to cover their home and vehicles. “That’s a huge issue right now.”
Parts of Interstate 94, one of the main arteries running through Detroit, remained closed Monday morning as the Michigan Department of Transportation continued to deal with the floodwater. “While temporary generators are working at three of the pump houses on I-94, the water flows back onto the freeway as the local creeks and rivers are cresting and there is nowhere for additional water to go,” the DOT said in a statement.
While the rain has stopped for now and some of the water has receded, there’s a lot to clean up, some of which can be dangerous. The remaining floodwaters, the Department of Transportation said, could have bacteria and sewage, and downed power lines also create the risk of electrocution. Michigan State Police tweeted a photo Sunday of people wading and swimming through a flooded section of road.
“Do not go into the water,” the tweet reads. “This water has debris, sharp metal, submerged cars, gasoline and oil floating in it. There is also a good chance that there is sewage also in the water.”
The area may not be out of the woods yet. The National Weather Service forecast that the stormy weather will continue through this week in the region. The Detroit area could see “serious storms” on Tuesday. Given how the city is still struggling to deal with some of Friday’s floodwaters, another storm could keep the flooding up. Areas to the west, including Chicago, are under flash flood watches and warnings as “torrential downpours” move through the area. That could lead to more widespread damage.
Detroit’s devastating flood coming as a wall of heat hits the Pacific Northwest is a good reminder of our new abnormal and the need to figure out how to pay attention to two — or more — major crises at once. And, Sublette said, cities like Detroit could feel one-two punches of increased rainfall and increased heat.
“Every city has to look at its climate and climate risks moving forward. Detroit is obviously different from Phoenix,” he said. “In Detroit, they’ve got to get used to much warmer summers, heavier rainfall events, much more flash flooding. The human toll in Detroit, it’s going to start to turn warmer, more humid, and what does that mean for vulnerable populations in the city? The kinds of days that almost never happen will start to happen.”