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MDOT pump house didn't fail, it simply couldn't keep up

Posted at 2:22 PM, May 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-03 15:21:03-04

(WXYZ) — The pumps didn’t fail. They just can’t do anything more.

On Wednesday night and throughout Thursday morning metro Detroiters were in awe of the shocking devastation flooding brought throughout the area — the jaw-dropping image was that of the Southfield Freeway covered in 10-plus feet of water, teasing the bottom of the Outer Drive overpass.

“If Mother Nature wants it to flood, you aren’t going to stop it,” said Dave Miller, a pump house foreman for Wayne County contracted by the Michigan Department of Transportation. “We tried. You know? It’s tough.”

Miller took 7 Action News down below ground to see the infrastructure responsible for keeping roads dry during rain events. This week was simply too much for three giant pumps to keep off the Southfield Freeway.

In 2014, we saw a similar situation unfold, but Miller notes they learned lessons from that mass rain event. This time 3 1/2 inches of rain fell in a short period of time, as water bowled into the freeway the pumps kicked in to empty the road. The sheer amount of water overwhelmed the system.

The pumps continued to work, however, the water was simply working it’s way back into overfilled streams that continued to flood into neighborhoods — those neighborhoods then dumped water into the lower lying Southfield Freeway. They were essentially stuck in a cycle until the water could work it’s way down in the nearby creek.

“It’s a pretty vicious circle until the rain slows and it recedes,” explained Miller. “We let the pumps do their job, and we got it down fairly quickly — some people may think that’s a long time, but it was quicker than in the past.”

In fact, the contractors from the county who work the MDOT-owned pump station noted that they viewed their ability to save the pump house a win. You wouldn’t know it by driving local roads, but there’s more than 150 pump houses across Wayne County. Several were being overworked on Wednesday and Thursday, but the one on Outer Drive was attempting to handle so much water that the top floors that aren’t designed to take on water started to flood.

Workers brought in several additional pumps to draw water out of that room to keep the expensive equipment from shorting out.

This paints a picture of a much needed update to the infrastructure. Once upon a time it would take a 100-year flood event to bring on such rains, but as significant rainfall amounts in shortened windows become more common even county leaders point out that there’s too many needs to fix it all immediately.

Warren Evans, the county’s executive, told 7 Action News that despite this week’s flooding the needs of upgraded infrastructure remains a lower priority than at least a few things.

“To be perfectly honest that’s a secondary issue to the major infrastructure issue that people are concerned about now which is the potholes on the roads and bridges,” said Evans. “I’m not suggesting those things aren’t being worked on, but nothing is going to happen overnight. It’s a dollar issue.”

The county has issued a state of emergency to help the locals who have been affected by this week’s flooding. It’s estimated that more than 3,000 people were affected by the floods, that includes homeowners who live in nearby Allen Park.

“It’s a mess,” said Allen Himstad. “I don’t know what I’m going to do to be honest with you.”

Himstad was showing a news crew his 1 1/2 story home. His basement is essentially the first floor of his home, he’d been repairing it the past few years before Wednesday’s flooding brought more than two feet of water into his kitchen and living room. On Friday the floor was still wet, wooden boards lay water-logged by the curb.

“It’s a tough situation, all you can do is wait was water to recede and then you’re left with this,” he said.

“To fix this,” he said before a long pause staring at the damage left behind. “It’s a catastrophe.”

It’s unclear at this time whether FEMA money will be made available for the recovery, the county is preparing to work with local communities to tally the monetary damage to determine if they’re eligible. In the meantime, thousands of people are beginning the cleanup.

As for the county contracted employees responsible for working the MDOT pump houses, there’s little rest. After pumps worked overtime hours, after hour, they’re now working to oil, grease and cleanup drains to ensure they’re ready for the next major rain event.