Services available for those in need this winter, especially following last year’s disaster

Almost 18 months have passed since the dams were breached on Wixom and Sanford Lakes, resulting in one of the greater disasters in Michigan’s history. While no lives were lost, the property damage was immense throughout the Tittabawassee River corridor. While much has been done to help people in need, there’s still much to do with winter approaching. In addition, there are many others who are looking for help with basic needs as we go into a holiday season still clouded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anne Wortley is one of three long-term disaster case managers in Midland County. She’s currently working with nine families, still not living in their homes. Wortley reports that four are in rentals, one is staying in a hotel, two are living in campers on their properties while they work on their homes, one is living with a friend, and another is staying in her office that she owns. All of their homes were either damaged, destroyed, or demolished. 

While no lives were lost, the property damage was immense throughout the Tittabawassee River corridor.Wortley says, “I am hoping they will be in their homes by Christmas.”

Wortley works for UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which is working on behalf of the Long Term Disaster Recovery Group. Support for the case managers and the flood recovery funds comes from United Way and the Midland Area Community Foundation.  

So far, they’ve issued over $2.7 million in aid to flood survivors. They’ve met with 178 clients but not all have received aid from this program. Wortley notes, “Some just had case management and we were able to secure funds elsewhere.”

There are unique challenges facing some property owners as they put their homes back together.

Wortley works for UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which is working on behalf of the Long Term Disaster Recovery Group.“I have five projects where we are going backward because of electrical issues,” says Wortley.  State of Michigan electrical code requires all of a home’s electrical to be changed out if the home incurred three feet of water. In the five projects, the homeowners had already installed drywall and insulation and had painted when they contacted the case managers for help with doors or other items. When some reported they were having problems with electrical outlets, they learned they had to change out their electrical.

Another issue is the lower level of that area’s water aquifer since the lakes drained away. Two more property owners reported losing well water recently in Midland County. They’re being connected to the nonprofit, Home to Stay, to get help either replacing the well or connecting to City of Midland water.

Wortley and the other case managers' employment has been extended until next August. “People forget there are still needs out there,” says Wortley.


Call 211 for assistance with health care, housing and everything in between

Whether a person was impacted by the disaster or is facing other challenges, the first place to call for non-emergency help is 211. Sarah Kile has served as the executive director for 211 Northeast Michigan for over seven years. 

“They can call, chat with us online, or text us … We are for non-emergency crisis services,” says Kile. In Midland County, Kile reports 211 has handled 7,193 contacts as of the end of October this year.

211 can help people sign up for aid programs including SNAP, MIBridges, and WIC.“Most people calling us are calling for basic human needs,” she says. They’ve made over 4,000 referrals for health care needs alone, followed by utility, food, and housing needs.  
 
211 has served Midland County since 2009. It was started by the United Way and the First Call for Help. From there, it’s grown to cover 23 counties, including Cheboygan to the north, Gratiot to the southwest and St. Clair to the southeast.
 
211 Northeast Michigan is the first place to call for non-emergency crises.“Midland’s United Way realized it could and should be bigger,” says Kile.  All counties in Michigan are now covered by a 211 center.
 
In Midland County, it’s primarily supported by United Way and Dow which provides space, technology support, and a financial donation. 211 has also received money from the State of Michigan. They’ve grown from a staff of 2.5 FTE (full-time equivalent) to 18 FTE. To help 211, Kile encourages contributions to United Way.
 
“We maintain a database of health and human services in 23 counties. We put the person’s zip code into our database … We are going to offer them the best referral for their needs,” says Kile. 
 
211 can also help people sign up for aid programs including SNAP, MIBridges, and WIC. SNAP is the state’s supplemental nutrition assistance program. MIBridges is an online site that enables residents to apply for a variety of support services. WIC is a program for women, infants, and children. 

211 has made over 4,000 referrals for health care needs alone, followed by utility, food, and housing needs. “We want them to have long-term help,” she says.
 
Kile emphasizes, “Anyone can call 24/7 — it’s free, confidential. Give us a call; people are struggling. Don’t struggle again.” 
 
211 can also help if there are mental health concerns with the Hope Portal.
 
Open Door provides shelter and food
 
“A poverty of relationships” is what leads many people to seek the support of Midland’s Open Door, according to executive director Renee Pettinger. She’s been in that role for seven years.
 
The Open Door is the only soup kitchen in Midland County. They also provide shelter to men, women, and children at two locations. The main campus, which has housing for men, is located near the intersection of Buttles and Jerome Streets in downtown Midland. The women and children’s shelter is located in Homer Township. Open Door also has an outreach program for people “who fall in the cracks.”

If someone needs help, they can call Open Door at (989) 835-2291 or just stop in at the main campus.“We’re a ministry providing hope in the name of Christ,” says Pettinger.
 
Pettinger points out that most people have someone they can call on for help if they lose a job or a place to live, but for the folks Open Door helps, “They just don’t have the ‘people supports’ in their life.”
 
Demand for Open Door’s shelter is returning to pre-pandemic levels. The federal government’s CARES Act (COVID-19 Economic Relief) put a moratorium on evictions, which was extended several times. Pettinger notes more funding was also available to keep people housed. When a person stays at the shelter, the average length of stay for a man is 38 days, for a woman, 45. 
 
“We encourage anyone to come by and join us for a meal,” says Pettinger of Open Door.The soup kitchen downtown is open Monday through Saturday, serving lunch from 11:30 a.m, -1:30 p.m.
 
“We encourage anyone to come by and join us for a meal,” says Pettinger. “We hope to drive down stereotypes.” 
 
Open Door just held their major fundraiser this week, “Dine on the Doors.” In addition to financial support, they need volunteers. Pettinger says they are looking for people to assist with serving Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. They also need contributions to their gift programs for people living in their shelters.
 
If someone needs help, they can call (989) 835-2291 or just stop in at the main campus. It’s open 24/7, 365 days per year.

Read more articles by Ron Beacom.

Ron Beacom has served as the managing editor of Catalyst Midland since October 2020. He's also a freelance writer for the Midland Daily News and the producer/host of "Second Act: Life at 50 Plus" for WDCQ-Delta College Public Media (PBS). He's the co-producer of two WDCQ documentaries about the Tittabawassee River Disaster in 2020. "Breached! and Breached!2-The Recovery."