Thousands in Michigan evacuate after 2 dams are breached, and the governor warns city could soon be under ‘9 feet of water’

Floodwater surrounds Wixom Lake Gas & Launch, Tuesday, May 19, 2020 along the Tittabawassee River in Beaverton, Mich. An evacuation order was released the night before for residents of Sanford and Wixom Lakes, warning of "imminent dam failure." (Katy Kildee/Midland Daily News via AP)

(CNN) — A rain-swollen river has breached two dams and flooded fields and streets in parts of mid-Michigan, forcing evacuation orders for thousands amid a coronavirus pandemic that’s posing safety challenges Wednesday for officials trying to provide shelter.

Parts of the city of Midland and surrounding areas were virtual lakes Wednesday morning, and it could get worse. Downtown in Midland, a city of about 41,000 people downstream of the dams, could eventually be “under approximately 9 feet of water” on Wednesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the prior night.

“This is a particularly dangerous situation. Seek higher ground now!” the National Weather Service said Wednesday morning in a flash flood warning statement.

Water breached the Edenville and Sanford dams — which normally contain the the Tittabawassee River to create two separate lakes — north of Midland on Tuesday evening after days of heavy rain.

By Wednesday morning, water — waist-deep in places near Sanford, video from CNN affiliate WDIV shows — was lapping up against businesses and homes around the county.

Evacuation orders are in effect for about 3,500 homes and 10,000 people, Mark Bone, chairman of the Midland County Board of Commissioners, said he believes.

In Midland, about 150 residents of the Riverside Place senior residence — many with walkers or riding in wheelchairs — were among those who evacuated Tuesday evening, CNN affiliate WJRT reported.

The scene wasn’t easy to watch, said Toni Mclennan, a maintenance technician who checked the complex to make sure everyone was out.

Mclennan felt “sadness” and “the hope that they come back,” she told the station. “I mean, especially with this pandemic and you’re getting people in close quarters, it’s probably that much more scary.”

With the coronavirus pandemic months underway, officials in the county are juggling two public safety crises at once.The flood disaster is one of the first to test how local, state and federal response efforts can handle the dual challenge.

At least five shelters are running in the Midland area Wednesday — at schools and family centers — and flood evacuees are being screened for the illness, officials say.

The governor declared an emergency for the flooding, and said previous orders relating to the coronavirus crisis are locally suspended if they impede emergency responses for the flooding.

Though Wednesday is sunny and rain is not expected to resume for days, the river still was rising in Midland — and by Wednesday morning was already past the previous record of 33.89 feet. That was set during a major flood in the city in 1986.

At that height alone, the river will be flooding many homes, according to the National Weather Service. The river could crest at 38 feet Wednesday evening, according to the weather service.

Midland, about a 130-mile drive northwest of Detroit, is home to the Dow Chemical Co.

Officials are giving health screenings and distributing masks at shelters

No deaths or injuries have been reported, Midland spokeswoman Selina Crosby Tisdale said Wednesday.

At the shelters, workers are checking evacuees’ temperatures and handing out masks to them because of the pandemic, Tisdale said.

Workers also are trying to space out the evacuees throughout the shelters, hoping to reduce the chances that anyone who might be carrying the virus spreads it to others.

Evacuees should expect to stay away from their homes for days, Tisdale said.

“We’re still waiting to crest, and then we have to wait for water levels to recede. It’s going to take days until we get to that point,” Tisdale said.

The governor acknowledged Tuesday that confronting the flooding “in the midst of a global pandemic is almost unthinkable.”

“Please, to the best of your ability, continue to wear a face covering when you go to a shelter or go stay with a friend or relative,” Whitmer said in a news conference Tuesday night.

About 100 Michigan National Guard members are helping with evacuations, Capt. Andrew Layton said Wednesday.


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