How Metro Detroit homeowners are protecting their properties from future floods

Since her basement flooded in late June, Heather Bendure is making some dramatic changes to the lower level of her Grosse Pointe Park bungalow.

Built-in bookcases, damaged in a flood, are being replaced with adjustable wire shelving because the metal pieces can be disinfected and reused after water issues, and items can be kept further from any drain backup. The family is also considering replacing drywall with a paneling option that would be easier to remove, pitch, and replace if damaged.

A few streets away, Kelly Blunden has placed a new front-load washer and dryer on pedestals, hoping to keep the appliances out of the reach of rising water. She’s also replacing her basement furniture with waterproof, indoor-outdoor furniture.

In Royal Oak, Mindy Gambrell has added a special rider on her homeowner’s insurance to cover sewer and water backups. She’s taken advantage of the city’s sewer protection plan that allows one free pipe snaking each year. She also has packed important papers and mementos in watertight containers, stored 2 feet off the floor.

“I have been dealing with sewer backup and flooded basements since I bought my home 11 years ago,” Gambrell says. “Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in our area and something my whole community has been accustomed to.”

The measures Gambrell and other homeowners across Metro Detroit are taking have become more common in the wake of widespread flooding across the region this summer. Flooding has occurred several times in some areas, with multiple causes raising renewed concerns with the metropolitan area’s aging water and sewer infrastructure and changing weather patterns.

Photo: David Lewinski.

After Bendure’s basement flooded in 2016, the family refinished it again, only to sustain tens of thousands of dollars in damage again in June. Five inches of water stood in the basement, used as a media room and playroom for the kids, for 10 hours. 

“We’re in a holding pattern now,” says Bendure, believing infrastructure problems are behind the frequent flooding. “We’re reluctant to rebuild until the system is fixed. Do we build up instead of building down? There were people who had it much worse than we did — people who didn’t have insurance coverage. My husband says he can’t do this again.”

For the time being, while deciding their next steps, the family has brought in a loveseat from Bendure’s office waiting room, bought a new dog bed, a bean bag chair for their son, and a small rug for gaming and TV watching. The TV is wall-mounted and electronics are on a tall folding table.

“One rule is you leave nothing on the floor,” says Bendure. “People are really trying to come up with the best solutions. Not everybody can afford not to use their basement.”

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department also offers homeowners tips to reduce the impact of flooding. They include checking basement drains for clogging, cleaning gutters, and clearing any debris around catch basins and storm drains. 
 
In Grosse Pointe Park, Blunden and her family have pursued some of those measures after the basement of their multi-dwelling home flooded in June, destroying appliances, furniture, gym equipment, toys, Christmas decorations, and family mementos. Blunden estimates damage at about $30,000.

“We’re doing everything we can to improve drainage around the house," says Blunden. "We’ve also had the plumbing inspected so we know we’re good there.”

Like other flood-weary residents, the Blundens, who share the unfinished basement of their home with their lower-level tenants — their daughter and her fiance — are rethinking how to use the space, concerned about the possibilities of future floods.

“There are families who have been flooded multiple times,” she says, adding the problems in her area seem to be connected to aging infrastructure. “Something bigger is going on. We’re seeing all these communities flooding. Climate change is real and we have to react and respond appropriately. Our systems were not built for this. It’s not sustainable either. We can’t be flooding all the time. It can’t be the norm.” 

Homeowners in Grosse Pointe are using sandbags to protect properties from rising water levels. Photo: David Lewinski.

The widespread flooding this summer has prompted lawsuits and millions of dollars in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) claims. The Great Lakes Water Authority, which provides drinking water and sewer services to many Metro Detroit communities, is conducting investigations into the rain events and outages that occurred at two pumping stations. 

Some preliminary findings shared with the Detroit City Council this week indicate widespread flooding would have occurred across the region in late June even if all the pumps had been operating properly. The region's combined sewer system is designed for 1.7 inches of rain an hour -- much more fell during the June and other storms. 

"As the region continues to have discussions about the rain events and resiliency, we are seeing a recognition that the level of service that the system provides for environmental protection is likely different than the level of protection that is needed for flood control. This is the right conversation, and it is a conversation that we all need to be a part of. By that I mean us, our local systems, member partner communities, regulators, and road agencies," says Suzanne Coffey, interim CEO of the authority. 

Those conversations voice a widespread concern among Metro Detroit homeowners, many of whom are wary of refinishing their basements again.

Dr Richard Rood“As a homeowner, you have to stop thinking, "I will fix this by building back like it was originally,” says Richard Rood, professor of climate and space science and engineering at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering.

“You have to stop thinking of the flood as a one-off event," he says. "How do I deal with more frequent, severe floods? What if I am in a chronic state of flood?  Rather than just fixing the problem at hand, what are the things I can do more systematically to anticipate and leave me better prepared.”

Rood adds that it’s better to think of community, city, and even regional responses to the situation, noting what one person does to his property can adversely affect a neighbor and vice versa.

“You need to think about how all the pieces fit together.”

The pieces of the puzzle include local governments, and what local officials are learning from these extreme events to prepare and design for the future.

“How do we stretch current building standards, and how do we start the process of new building standards and zoning practices. How can I educate our planners and local engineering firms to better incorporate climate change? You need to think about if there are better ways to use parks and landscaping,'' he says. “Are there places where it would really be better not to rebuild? Am I in a place where I will be fighting a losing battle for the rest of my life?”

It can seem like that for some homeowners. 

In Grosse Pointe Farms, Andy Bayster had prepared the finished basement of his two-story Colonial for potential flooding. The family placed yearbooks, wedding albums, and pictures in plastic tubs. The basement, used for Andy’s office, a playroom, laundry, and storage, flooded in late June, the second time in a decade.

“It was a catastrophe. When you have that much water that fast, it will knock over tubs,” he says, noting damage amounted to tens of thousands of dollars. “I don’t think people realize what that amount of water can do, the power of that water and what it will ruin. We had a nicely finished basement. Everything was ruined.”

Andy and Holly Bayster have had their basement flood twice in ten years. Photo: David Lewinski.

Bayster, who is a real estate investor and manager, has spent many hours this summer cleaning and tearing up his basement, wondering how to best prepare for future floods or whether he should rebuild again.

“I’ve gone over this with my wife — what are we going to do differently,” he says. “We need this basement. We need the finished space down there. We don’t really have much of a choice but to go back and rebuild.”

Bayster has decided not to put carpeting down again; instead, he’s looking at using vinyl plank flooring, which is more water-resistant. “Even if it gets wet, we can pick it up and dry it, clean it, and put it back down,” he says. The family also has bought more shelving to keep important items off the floor. 

Photo: David Lewinski.

Polygon, a company offering emergency drying services, recommends homeowners buy and install sump pumps with backup power and regularly check them to make sure they’re working. The company also recommends hiring a licensed electrician to raise electric components at least 12 inches above the project flood elevation, sometimes known as the base flood elevation (BFE). In addition, all appliances, including furnaces and hot water heaters should be placed on concrete blocks 12 inches above projected flood levels.

Bayster has considered purchasing a backflow preventer, to mitigate flooding, but it’s a costly option — a couple of thousand dollars. Even a sump pump is a costly addition, and he's wary of stories in which both measures have failed.

“Nothing is foolproof,” says Bayster. “I think we’re stuck. I don’t think there is much we can do. We’re at the mercy of the sewer system we have and you just have to hope it functions properly. You get the feeling every time it's dumping rain that you have to go check the basement. I wish I didn’t have to do that. It’s the kind of reality that we live in.”

The Fox Creek Canals in Grosse Pointe have seen water levels rise with recent rainfall, prompting residents to add "tiger dams" to protect properties. Photo: David Lewinski.
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