Disaster case managers are still working to help people recover from the 2020 disaster

“A definition of a disaster is something that overwhelms the community’s ability to respond.” Those are the words shared by Raegan Schultz, one of the two remaining long-term disaster case managers, still helping people whose property was impacted when the dams on Wixom and Sanford Lakes were breached two years ago today, May 19, 2020.

The impact was breathtaking. While no lives were lost, homes and businesses were destroyed or heavily damaged along the Tittabawassee River corridor from Gladwin County, through Midland County, and into Saginaw County. The Presidential Disaster Declaration included Arenac and Iosco Counties, which saw flooding and damage from the storms that dropped several inches of rain.  The response to the disaster was also breathtaking. Neighbors helping neighbors, teams of volunteers from within the community, and many more who poured in from outside of our area and the state to help with the clean up and the rebuild. The Long Term Disaster Recovery Group coordinated over 33,000 hours of volunteer time with a value of over $900,000 in labor.

A volunteer crew helps the owners clean out a Midland home.

That group was formed by the Midland Area Community Foundation (MACF) and the United Way of Midland County in conjunction with the Michigan conference of the United Methodist Church and their Committee on Relief (UMCOR).  Just three years earlier, in 2017, one of the larger floods in Midland’s history triggered a similar effort. That would lay the groundwork for the largest disaster in the area’s history. Sharon Mortensen, MACF president and CEO, says, “We learned a lot from 2017, so many lessons learned. That enabled us, when we got to 2020, to decide to get this Long-Term (Disaster)  Recovery Group  going right now. We grew, really grew.”

To support this effort, over $5.2 million was raised in Midland County, according to data released by the group.  $1.2 million was raised in Arenac, Gladwin, and Iosco Counties. The amount raised in Saginaw County wasn’t available.  State and federal dollars totaling over $75.6 million also came into the affected communities from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA).  Over $3.5 million in in-kind donations also made a difference. Those donations included food, personal care items, cleaning supplies, tools, drywall, siding, insulation, paint, and appliances.  FEMA observed $46 million in verified loss to homes and essential property across 5,200 applicants for assistance. This does not consider secondary homes, rental properties, businesses, or contents loss not considered ‘essential’ by FEMA definition. FEMA dollars helped in several ways including home repair, replacement, rental assistance, personal property, and wells.
Case manager Carla Long assists a homeowner on Wixom Lake in 2021.
Mortensen says,  “Some of the first dollars that we spent were dollars that went for disaster case managers (DCM)  and a construction manager.  We saw how vitally important that was. It was important to connect these people to resources. Help them work through the process with FEMA. They (DCM)  were such an incredible help to people at all levels of the process.”

Schultz, who was hired in July 2020, has served 70 clients. She was one of five case managers initially serving Midland, Gladwin and Saginaw Counties. A sixth case manager added later.  At one point, they were each managing 25-35 cases. The case managers eventually worked with 440 households across the five county area.  Just over 60 of those cases are still open. They’re down to two case managers, covering all five counties.  Schultz reports there is grant funding to support the case managers work into the fall but it’s being reviewed on a month-by-month basis. Now, Schultz no longer works in an office, instead, she works from home. 

Schultz says the work is still going on, for example, “Some wells still need to be drilled. We just don’t have the contractors to keep up with the need. There’s just long lists of people waiting in line to have their wells drilled.” Gladwin County reported over 700 property owners near Wixom Lake who get their water from wells either had their wells overwhelmed by flooding, lost pressure, or lost their water source completely when the water table dropped significantly after the lakes drained away.  While not at the same volume, wells are also an issue in Midland County near Sanford Lake.

The late spring has also had an impact.. Schultz reports they were able to get a property owner into her new home late last fall but have had to wait to do concrete and other exterior work until now.  Heavy trucks weren’t permitted on some roads due to seasonal weight limitations.

Other challenges include the sometimes lengthy permitting process involving the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), and local municipalities including the City of Midland, when a property owner wants to rebuild in a floodway or flood plain. Floodway means a property that could be in the path of moving water during a flooding event, while a  floodplain is land where water is expected to gather during the event. Schultz encourages property owners to consider buying flood insurance, “It’s a worthwhile investment if your community is prone to flood.” She adds that if your community participates in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), any insurance agent should be able to offer flood insurance. Schultz notes that approximately 70% of people who make flood insurance claims in Michigan do not live in a floodplain or floodway. 

Case manager Anne Wortley works with a homeowner on MIdland's west side in 2021.
Before a case manager would use local dollars that were donated, they worked with their clients to get as much help as they could from state and federal agencies. Even the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services had $1,500 grants. Schultz says their goal was to, “Exhaust every avenue of funding. It takes time to get those dollars and resources.”

Schultz got some first hand long-term disaster recovery experience when she volunteered in New Orleans on an alternative spring break from college in 2019,  almost 14 years after Hurricane Katrina, a category 5 hurricane, devastated the coast along the Gulf of Mexico. 

From her latest experience, Schultz says, “Be prepared for recovery to take so much longer than you expect. People hit with disaster are going to be in a hurry to get back. We were a voice of reason. We were told by FEMA it would take 18 months to recover from the disaster.” In the aftermath, Schultz says property owners try to call an electrician, a plumber, a contractor to get work done but she says everybody is trying to do the same thing.
Volunteers cleaning up the lake beds.
When Mortensen looks back at the response, she says, “We learned the importance of communication. People wanted to know what we were doing, what’s happening.  We wanted to make sure we were communicating.” In the fall of 2020, the  recovery group started holding monthly online meetings during the COVID-19 crisis, which carried its own challenges. At each meeting, a variety of speakers presented information. The speakers included representatives from the Four Lakes Task Force, the authority delegated by Midland and Gladwin Counties to lead the recovery efforts related to the dams and lakes. While those meetings ended last fall, a session is scheduled to be held today, May 19, on the disaster’s second anniversary.

Mortensen reflects on what transpired in the past two years, “Our community was phenomenal. We bonded in such an incredible way. We just need to count ourselves very grateful and blessed. We cared for one another.”


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."