Fragile Infrastructure:
When Dams Fail

My wife answered the call on a rainy Tuesday evening in May. “Hey Jessie. Can I bring my family over to stay the night? We have to evacuate.”

My brother-in-law Daniel Wood of Midland, Michigan was on the line. “Not sure how bad it’s going to get but we can’t stay here,” he told his sister. “Our neighborhood is a ghost town.” Thirty minutes later, his family of five and their dog were at our door.

Around 5:30 p.m. on May 19, 2020, after 6-8 inches of rain, a portion of the Edenville Dam’s earthen embankment, left, breached, causing the torrential release of Wixom Lake to rush downstream toward Sanford Lake, overwhelming Sanford Dam. Billions of gallons of water rushed downstream toward Midland, Michigan, forcing the evacuation of more than 10,000 people and causing $250M in damages. At right is the spillway and powerhouse of the Edenville Dam looking south.

On the night of May 19, 2020, as the Wood family drove toward our house fifteen miles away, a catastrophic torrent of lake, rain and river water, 37.5 billion gallons strong, roared down the Tittabawassee River toward their home. 10,000 people–one fourth of the entire town–were evacuated safely within hours. During the exodus there was not one fatality, not one serious injury. The murky flood waters stopped blocks from the Wood’s house; others were not so lucky.

The Tittabawassee River floods parts of downtown Midland, Mich. looking northeast a few hours after the 35 foot crest of a catastrophic flood from the result of two collapsed dams upriver. The three-way wooden foot bridge known as the “Tridge” is inches above the river on the evening of May 20, 2020. The green circular structure is the rooftop of The Farmers Market.

Two upstream lakes along the Tittabawassee River, which meets the Chippewa River at Midland, had dams fail under the immense pressure of 6-8 inches of rain that had fallen in days, one quarter of the average rainfall the area received in an entire year. The unprecedented amount of rain soaked the watershed surrounding the lakes during the two days leading up to the evacuation. 

Looking northeast, the Tittabawassee River floods Chippewassee Park and parts of downtown Midland, Michigan on May 20, 2020 during the crest of a catastrophic flood from the failure of two one-hundred-year old dams up river. The flag was at half staff to mourn those who lost their lives due to COVID-19.
Locals in a boat, left, survey the flood damage along the The Tittabawassee River next to downtown Midland, Michigan during the catastrophic flood of 2020, the result of two collapsed dams upriver.

The first dam to fail was the Edenville Dam, which held back a reservoir named Wixom Lake. A lakefront property owner said he saw, over the first two days, the water come up slowly past the seawall toward his house. Just as his basement began flooding, to his relief the lake water suddenly began receding. He scratched his head. He followed the receding water down to the sea wall. As he watched the water recede the horror was immediately clear. The entire lake was emptying. It took one hour, and it was gone. Docks extended out into nothing. Boats soon rested on solid ground like lost souls. 

After the Edenville Dam burst on May 19, 2020, Wixom lake drained. The calamity left lake shore property values decimated.

Wixom Lake joined the already swollen Tittabawassee River as it rushed downstream toward Sanford Lake. What happened at Wixom Lake repeated itself at Sanford Lake. Lakefront houses flooded and then their lake emptied too when the Sanford Dam was overwhelmed and partially failed.  

Waterless docks are a striking reminder of the two lost lakes, Wixom and Sanford in Midland County. Torrential rain on May 19, 2020, caused the Edenville dam, cited for many violations over previous decades, to fail, sending Wixom Lake down the Tittabawassee River to Sanford Lake, in turn, causing the Sanford dam to fail, dumping billions of gallons of water into Midland and surrounding communities. The state of Michigan has called it a ‘500-year flood.’

Many mid-Michigan families lost their homes. In total, approximately 2,500 structures were destroyed or damaged. Preliminary destruction estimates total more than $250 million excluding the potential rebuilding of the dams which would cost an estimated $200 million.

Both dams were originally constructed nearly a century ago and owned by a private company (Boyce Hydro Power). They are not unique. Now more than ever, the governmental bodies and corporations that surround the Great Lakes must come together to ensure these types of properties are appropriately regulated and maintained, or we can expect more catastrophes  in the heart of North America. We have an obligation to future generations to protect our precious Great Lakes Region.

Green foliage has taken over most of the bottom of what was once Sanford Lake, which appears to have reverted back to a river. U.S. 10 is seen in the foreground on September 6, 2020.
About the Author:
Kent C. Miller, Photojournalist and Professor, Central Michigan University

An award-winning photojournalist for nearly forty years, Kent is also a professor at Central Michigan University (CMU) where he teaches photojournalism, widely recognized as one of the country’s finest programs of its type.

Kent’s students also reported on the ‘500 Year Flood’: One Damn Thing after Another. For more information on Kent’s work:

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