Heard on All Things Considered

Water Pumps Failed to Work During Heavy Rains That Caused Metro Detroit Flooding, Great Lakes Water Authority Says

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Image credit: Sishir Buddharaju/WDET

Officials say four pumps at Detroit facilities stopped working because of various electrical failures during last weekend’s downpour.

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Officials with the Great Lakes Water Authority say one-third of the system’s water pumps at the Conners Creek and Freud facilities failed to work because of power outages during last weekend’s heavy rainfall, causing widespread flooding and power outages in Metro Detroit. 

The two facilities have a total of 12 pumps to manage wastewater and stormwater when needed, and four water pumps stopped working because of various electrical failures, officials say. The agency said the Conners Creek station was down for an hour. 

Sishir Buddharaju/WDET
Sishir Buddharaju/WDET

Sue McCormick, Chief Executive Officer of the regional water system, said Friday she does not know what impact that had on the flooding. 

We get a lot of water really quickly that combines into the sewer system because of the rainwater,” said McCormick. “Understanding that the pumps can only come on in stages, every so many minutes. Could we have kept up with the rain? I can’t answer that, that’s what the after-event analysis will provide us.” 

Speaking on Detroit Today Friday, McCormick said human error was not the cause of the flooding, but rather the size of the storm. “[The stormwater system] was overwhelmed like the systems were overwhelmed everywhere … the system is not designed for storms of this magnitude.” 

Navid Mehram, the Chief Operating Officer of the Great Lakes Water Authority’s wastewater operating services, said a pair of electricians were available to manage the power outages at the two sites. 

Our staffing for this station and these events that occur was kind of consistent with what we would do in larger storms,” Mehram said, adding that the water authority made upgrades on a vacuum priming system at Conners Creek that helps start the pumps after floods in 2016. That priming pump sprayed water on a circuit breaker over the weekend, causing power outages that delayed most of the station’s pumps from working. 

When you have mechanical equipment, failures can occur, even after corrections just because they’re moving parts and mechanical equipment,” he said. 

Could we have kept up with the rain? I can’t answer that, that’s what the after-event analysis will provide us.” —Sue McCormick, Great Lakes Water Authority

The Freud facility is operated remotely from GLWA’s control center. Officials say an electrical system owned by Detroit’s Public Lighting Authority was not servicing Freud before the storm, and the facility had to use a generator to run at half capacity.  

GLWA is exploring the replacement of the Conners Creek station and upgrades to the Freud station, which could cost a total of $250 million, estimating it will take eight years to complete construction. Both are currently in the design phase. They said the water authority did not lay off employees during the pandemic but is having challenges filling positions. 

Answers Sought 

Gary Brown of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department said the DWSD did an investigation into reports of discolored water on the east side. “There was a disruption to the water main that feeds that neighborhood and that hospital. We spent all night flushing the system and we got it cleaned out,” he said. City of Detroit/Flickr
City of Detroit/Flickr

Gary Brown of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department said the DWSD did an investigation into reports of discolored water on the east side. “There was a disruption to the water main that feeds that neighborhood and that hospital. We spent all night flushing the system and we got it cleaned out,” he said. 

As thousands of Metro Detroiters continue to clean up and assess the damage from last weekend’s heavy rains, which affected large areas of Detroit, Dearborn and other parts of Wayne County, area leaders are seeking answers. 

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller said Thursday the flooding caused wastewater to back up into places like St. Clair Shores and Eastpointe. She called for an independent investigation

Why weren’t they already on station? Everyone knew the rain was coming,” Miller said in a statement. “No system is designed for 6, 7 inches of rain,” Miller said. “But if there was any human error as well by not getting into the plant and flipping on the generator, or whatever happened there, we need to know, because all the public wants is competency in government. That’s a simple ask — competency in government. They want transparency, they want accountability and so do we in Macomb County.” 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said the city wants answers, too. 

I agree that it should be investigated. But that means Macomb needs to investigate themselves, too,” he said. 

Detroit officials say the city’s water distribution systems were working as designed last weekend. But they say the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department is no longer responsible for the pumping plants, which were regionalized as part of the city’s exit from bankruptcy. 

In the aftermath of the rain, discolored water was found coming from taps and toilets at St. John Hospital and by residents in neighborhoods like Cornerstone Village, East English Village and Morningside. DWSD lifted an advisory to stop using the water, asking residents to flush their pipes for at least 5 minutes before using starting at the lowest level of their homes, and clean the aerators in their faucets. 

We did an investigation. There was a disruption to the water main that feeds that neighborhood and that hospital,” said DWSD Director Gary Brown. “We spent all night flushing the system and we got it cleaned out.” 

Appeal to the White House 

Debris is lined up on the side of the road in Detroit as cleanup efforts continue.City of Detroit/Flickr
City of Detroit/Flickr

Debris is lined up on the side of the road in Detroit as cleanup efforts continue.

Duggan is planning to speak with President Joe Biden this weekend as Detroit assesses the damage caused by last week’s flooding. The two are expected to meet in Traverse City.   

The mayor of Detroit is appealing to the federal government for emergency assistance. Duggan said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be in southeast Michigan next week. 

FEMA will be on the ground here next Thursday of next week. This is record speed. Certainly much faster than we saw in 2014,” he said Thursday at a news conference. 

We have to provide materials. Every city being affected has to put together a summary of the impact and the governor has to assemble all of it before the FEMA team can issue their recommendation,” Duggan added. 

The Detroit Department of Public Works has nearly tripled its cleanup crews to help clear debris. City officials are asking residents to keep photo records of their property damage and cleaning repairs to back up their claims. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer submitted a request to FEMA Wednesday in a plea to help cover the cost of repairs.  

Some neighborhoods affected by flooding have been hit by scammers posing as city employees. Officials with DWSD say their staff and affiliated volunteers have marked clothing, vehicles and badges, instructing concerned residents to call the utility before allowing suspected workers in their homes. 

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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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