The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Flooding and wreckage in Detroit expose the city’s climate vulnerability

Floodwaters under an overpass on Michigan Avenue in Detroit on June 26. (Max Ortiz/Detroit News via AP)
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For more than two weeks, convoys of garbage trucks have slowly crept through neighborhoods throughout Detroit, picking up damaged pool tables, soggy mattresses and endless boxes of irreplaceable memorabilia ruined by the June 25 flood caused by heavy rain.

In kitchens and dens, distressed residents are gathering what paperwork wasn’t ruined to submit to the city, state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in hopes of compensation. It was the second devastating flood to sweep the city in the last seven years.

Much attention has been given to the potential for climate-change-driven devastation in coastal cities from rising seas, but with storms intensifying, inadequate city infrastructure is being exposed, as seen in New York over the past week.

The damage in Detroit last month was particularly upsetting because the city has made considerable progress in rebounding from its dilapidated nadir in 2013 as the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The flood, and the infuriatingly slow effort to collect the wreckage it left behind, exposed the city’s physical fragility and stirred memories of the bleak, bad old days.

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D) estimates that FEMA has already documented 12,000 damaged homes in metro Detroit, and expects that at least 20,000 in her home base of Dearborn, Mich., sustained flooding. Residents are “tired, frustrated, angry, and quite frankly, they have every right to be,” she said in a district newsletter on Monday.

An emergency declaration by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) will remain in place until July 24; she has urged President Biden to issue a federal disaster declaration.

When Detroit declared bankruptcy, it was littered with 80,000 abandoned homes and buildings. Half of its streetlights didn’t work, and emergency calls commonly weren’t answered by police for almost an hour. Though at least 20,000 structures still need to be torn down as of last year, long-empty buildings in the city center have been renovated.

There are new condos and hotels, a pleasant park that now stretches 5½ miles along the Detroit River, and young residents glide around town on bicycles and scooters, or use the city’s surface rail system.

But underneath, the bones of the city cry out for attention.

Perhaps the most striking symbol of a failing, flooded electrical system was the 10-day power outage at the Fisher Building, darkening an Art Deco tower that is a jewel of the Detroit skyline.

The flood also shut major highways, not just for hours, but for days. Interstate 94, the city’s main east-west freeway, which I’ve driven ever since I got my license, reopened only last week. Michigan State Police estimated that at least 350 vehicles had to be removed from roadways that had flooded.

One problem is that, beginning with the Davison Freeway, opened in 1942 to accommodate defense-plant traffic, Detroit officials decided to build sunken roadways, in part to keep the buzz of passing cars from disturbing homeowners.

The roads, nicknamed “the ditches,” require a citywide pumping system, akin to the one New Orleans uses to clear its streets. During the June 25 storm, at least 28 of the area’s 140 freeway pumps either did not have power or ran into mechanical problems. This, despite extensive efforts following the 2014 floods to make sure freeway pumps would remain functional in the wake of storms.

Bill Shuster, professor and chair of the department of environmental science at Wayne State University, thinks urban resources to deal with climate change simply aren’t keeping up with the threat.

“The burden just keeps getting larger and larger each time,” he said on the public radio program “Detroit Today.” “It’s really about social and political will to make sure resources are available.”

City officials have rebuffed critics, saying no one could have anticipated the disaster.

A day after the storm, Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan (D) tweeted that nearly six inches of rain fell on the city in 24 hours, “far beyond the capacity of Southeast Michigan’s stormwater system.”

He maintained that the storm was “more intense and devastating” than one in August 2014, when 4.85 inches fell over two days, causing more than $1 billion in damage.

But other measurements disagreed. An Iowa State University tracker and a calculation by WDIV-TV said Detroit itself got 2.37 inches of rain in last month’s storm, though surrounding areas did approach six inches. In any case, meteorologists gave the city plenty of warning.

Detroit has much at stake. It is trying to reestablish itself as a functional American city, erasing the vestiges of its decline and aiming to become a smaller, attractive place to work and live.

A decade ago, Detroit’s crumbling houses and abandoned factories were a magnet for “ruin porn” photographers and filmmakers. Now, the floods and those debris-filled front lawns present a new kind of ruin porn — and offer proof that the city can’t let up for a minute. More storms are coming.