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Heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition

Jefferson-Chalmers Residents and City Clash Over Flooding

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Image credit: Eli Newman

As waters recede in one of Detroit’s few waterfront communities, tensions have emerged between homeowners and city officials.

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Recent water levels in Jefferson-Chalmers. Residents say drainage is an issue.Eli Newman
Eli Newman

Recent water levels in Jefferson-Chalmers. Residents say drainage is an issue.

Record high water levels in the Great Lakes and a wet summer have caused flooding along Jefferson-Chalmers, one of Detroit’s riverfront neighborhoods. But as the waters recede, tensions between residents and the city have emerged.

The neighborhood borders a series of canals at the point where Lake Saint Clair becomes the Detroit River. The city has launched an emergency order to address the issue, asking residents to keep water out of the streets. 

Some homeowners, however, say the city should take more responsibility for the flooding problem by improving drainage infrastructure.

My issue is blame,” says Caroline Hardy-Grannum, a longtime resident of the area whose basement has about two feet of water in it. “We all recognize what the canals are going to do. It has been predicted. But not what the drains are going to do.”

I lost solar equipment, a water heater, my washer/dryer. All that good stuff,” - Lisa Sim, resident

She points to the flooded street, where a whirlpool swirls around a catch basin. 

My seawall, if you look back there right now, the water is not coming across,” Hardy-Grannum says. “It’s this drain right here. This drain accommodates all that comes down this way. [The city is]  responsible for the drains.”

A couple of city workers on her porch don’t have an answer for her. They’re here placing sandbags around people’s homes to maintain the waterfront.

Residents say the city should do more to prevent water from getting into houses.Eli Newman
Eli Newman

Residents say the city should do more to prevent water from getting into houses.

Two narratives

Basement water has been a consistent problem for residents. Many say floodwaters have lowered recently, but the levels have been going up and down for months.

Lisa Sim is in the middle of throwing out some of her belongings. She says she needs to get rid of a lot of things after they got soaked.

I lost solar equipment, a water heater, my washer/dryer,” Sim says. “All that good stuff.”

Basement flooding from earlier in the season when water levels were higher.Blake Grannum
Blake Grannum

Basement flooding from earlier in the season when water levels were higher.

Sim doesn’t live on the water. She says her flooding has more to do with city infrastructure, and the water coming up from down the street. 

A couple of us have filed a claim with the water department and they said they would mail something out to us,” Sim says as she brings wet items onto the street curb. “I said we might not get it because unless they were on a kayak, they weren’t going to get to our house just a day ago.”

The Detroit Water Department issued a statement when the year’s flooding first started, saying that the sewage system should have the capacity to handle stormwater for the season.

Right now, we don’t have a lot of complaints about basements flooding,” Water Department Director Gary Brown told reporters in May. “If we force the water that’s on the surface into the system too quickly, it could surcharge into basements.”

Officials with Detroit’s water department stand by the quality of the sewer system in Jefferson-Chalmers. They say they’ve been restricting water drainage on some blocks to increase the system’s capacity. If residents are experiencing basement flooding, the water department says it’s because of the high volume of river water coming from breaching seawalls, or damages in private plumbing and basement foundation. That would make it the homeowner’s responsibility to make those fixes.

Either way, the problem isn’t going away anytime soon. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit says the region will continue to see the threat of coastal flooding during storm events. 

Lunch break for workers who were in the neighborhood placing sandbags.
Eli Newman
Eli Newman

Lunch break for workers who were in the neighborhood placing sandbags.

Million dollar renovation, but for who?

As for what city crews are doing in Jefferson-Chalmers after sandbagging homes, it’s unclear. Local water authorities say they’re in the middle of capital improvements on the drainage system and nearby pumping station. 

The city has provided sand bag barriers to prevent flooding.Eli Newman
Eli Newman

The city has provided sand bag barriers to prevent flooding.

And more changes in Jefferson-Chalmers are on the way. Detroit urban planners recently crafted a series of investment strategies for the neighborhood.

Millions of dollars in city funding will go to new housing projects, improvements for walkability around the river, and support for neighborhood retail. Rain gardens and streetscapes designed to manage stormwater are also part of the framework. But for some residents, none of that matters if the area continues to flood from the canals and creek.

This neighborhood just got $5 million in grant money and there’s all these plans to do things to improve the neighborhood,” says Allison Key from her home on Fox Creek, which serves as a border between Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park. “But if everyone who lives on the water that can’t afford to fix it has to leave, then what’s the point?”

For many residents in Jefferson-Chalmers, the city’s response to the flooding, and the new money coming into the area represents a bigger fear – that the people who live on one of Detroit’s only waterfront communities might get washed away.

Eli Newman, Reporter/Producer

Eli Newman is a Reporter/Producer for 101.9 WDET, covering breaking news, politics and community affairs. His favorite Motown track is “It’s The Same Old Song” by the Four Tops.

eli.newman@wdet.org Follow @other_eli

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