Edison Neighborhood

City and partners work on response plans as floods are expected to continue

When the next flood rises — and there will be a next time — those who helped people recover from the February high-water levels are working to better coordinate service agencies so assistance can be offered more rapidly.

At 19.6 inches, rainfall in Kalamazoo is nearly five inches above normal this year. “That’s wet, but probably not near a record pace,” says MLive Chief meteorologist Mark Torregrossa.

So why is it creating so many problems? 

It’s not just the rain falling from the skies, it’s the water bubbling up through the ground. 

Pat Crowley, Kalamazoo County Drain Commissioner, says the conditions that led to February’s flooding began in the spring of 2017.  April and May of that year saw a lot of rain, they were followed by two months of drought, and then the wettest two months since 1876 happened. As a result, the ground became saturated.

With the ground not only saturated but frozen, what might otherwise have been an easily dealt with weather occurrence instead was instead a 500-year flood event. The Edison neighborhood, which has historically seen many floods, was particularly hard hit during the unusual February storm.

As the rain has continued throughout the spring, Crowley reports that across the county, “It’s hitting every sector very hard. People are pumping the water and it goes through the grass and comes right back in. All the drains are working, pulling water away, there is just so much water it’s not making any difference.”

Many residents, some of whom have never before had water in their houses, are frustrated with the flooding and are asking what the county drain office is going to do about it. “Our whole staff is a group of people who like to help people,” Crowley says. “But there is only a certain range within which humans have control over the environment. We are outside that range right now and that makes these very uncomfortable times.”

Meanwhile, in the City of Kalamazoo, plans are moving ahead to dredge the Crosstown Ponds, to create more capacity to hold water there, says Assistant City Manager Jeff Chamberlin. “Our engineering division is working on plans to dredge the Crosstown Ponds later this year. Basically to dig them out and make them deeper. We have to go through testing and permitting processes. And that project will help some but when we have really heavy rains like we experienced here in February” having dredged the ponds most likely will not stop flooding from occurring. 

Chamberlin says there are three factors that contributed to the flooding in the Edison neighborhood and surrounding areas that got hit hard by the flooding.

“Number one, is groundwater, the water that's below the surface of the earth. It is actually quite high right now. It goes up and down with time, and we're in a period when just naturally the groundwater is very high. We're actually seeing artesian springs popping out of the ground in areas down by the Crosstown Ponds. People are starting to see water coming into their basements just because the groundwater is coming in. 

“Number two is the area near the Crosstown Ponds and Vine Street is a low area of the city geographically. If you think of the city as a bowl, that's the bottom of the bowl, so it just naturally floods more often. Dredging the Crosstown Ponds will help with that somewhat. 

“And then the third challenge is the Kalamazoo River itself. When it floods, the water backs up into Portage Creek and the other creeks. So that area there, around Crosstown, actually can be impacted by any or all three of those factors, and what we saw in February was a combination of all three factors.”

In the immediate aftermath of the flooding there was a lot of work done making sure people were safe, that they had heat, and that needed repairs to their houses were made. 

Tom Tishler director of construction operations for Kalamazoo Valley Habitat for Humanity says among the people they helped, they worked with a number of “single, older seniors, all low-income folks. With this, we were helped out by grant funding from LISC (Local Initiative Support Corporation). Typically, we don't do free repairs. We have a home repair loan program where we go in and do affordable home repairs. And that's a zero-percent-interest loan. But with this, we just did it all for free.”

Residents, especially those in the floodplain, reported that they are used to routinely having water in their basements, but nothing like what happened in February. “Everybody said, ‘We're used to a flood about once a year. Two-, three-, four-, six-inches in a really, really bad year,” Tishler says. “This year they had four feet. It was just insane. And we talked to a couple of folks—one older gal—she's lived in the house for like 70 years or 60 years. And she said, ‘Yeah, we've never had more than like four or five inches of water." And this time she had three feet. So this was definitely an extreme anomaly.”

In addition to the work by local volunteers, two relief organizations, Team Rubicon and the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Group, were in town to assist with the cleanup. Team Rubicon is an international non-profit disaster response organization that rapidly deploys emergency response teams of military veterans, free of charge, to communities affected by disasters. Habitat trained them to install sump pumps and put them to work. Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Group, the third-largest disaster response team in the nation, also sent volunteers to assist where it was needed.

Residents living in their cars after the flood were not the worst of the situations the cleanup crews found. “There was one family that was actually in a second-floor apartment of a house that was a duplex, who had been living for weeks without any heat, hot water, or electricity,” says Shaun Wright, from Community Homeworks. The family was moved to a motel. 

“We had one family that their first floor got flooded about a foot high, and they had no heat or hot water, and really moldy situation,” Wright says. “They were using kerosene-fueled torpedo heaters to try to heat their house. They had two little kids. We got that taken care of. I mean there's a lot of stories like that out there. And as soon as we identified these families, or if the families found us, we helped solve those problems.”

The vast majority, perhaps as many as 99 percent, of those Community Homeworks served were those with low incomes. 

“When you have something of this magnitude that happens, when you have volunteers that come in, they are great in the first several weeks doing things like muck out and getting rid of garbage and stuff like that,” Wright says. “But then you start getting into the more technical stuff, like replacing furnaces and water heaters, or mold remediation. You can't send volunteers into the house to do mold remediation, due to safety concerns. You need skilled tradespeople to do the other work.” That’s when it gets expensive.

In early March, United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region and the Kalamazoo Community Foundation started the Kalamazoo Flood Relief Fund together with lead contributions of $10,000 each, for a total of $20,000. 

“Our top priority is helping flood victims in our community get back on their feet,” said Chris Sargent, President and CEO of United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region at the time the fund was announced. “Gathering the dollars needed for the massive recovery effort ahead is a role that United Way and the Kalamazoo Community Foundation are uniquely equipped to do. We’re eager to do what we can to help, and we invite businesses, individuals, and others to join us.”

Ultimately, $300,000 was spent just replacing furnaces and water heaters from flooded homes.

By early May, most of the residents needing the greatest amount of assistance had received it, but cleanup help was continuing for others. 

Dorla Bonner, Manager of Community Development for the City of Kalamazoo, says the group that came together during the flood to work out the logistics of helping those with water in their homes is continuing its work. For a month after the flood, the team met weekly as the recovery and cleanup continued. Now their attention has turned to developing a proactive approach so that service agencies are ready when the next big rain hits. They meet regularly as they map out a plan to deal with such emergencies in the future. 

Bonner says that Gryphon Place, which was the case manager for flood victims, is helping craft the response. The flood response team recognized a need to match the public services efforts with a human services recovery plan. “We should have started recovery when public services announced an emergency,” Bonner says.

Chamberlin says the City of Kalamazoo is going to continue to work with its engineers to make the physical improvements that it can. “But we expect these flooding events to continue. And in our conversations with other cities around the country people are seeing more flooding events more frequently nationwide. So the message is if somebody is in a flood plain there is a high likelihood that it will flood again. And people will need to be proactive about protecting their properties, such as building up their foundations and drainage.” 

Another possible solution being explored is a federal program that will buy peoples' homes in the floodplain. Homes would be sold voluntarily. And after a homeowner did participate the home would eventually be demolished and it would be left as green space. 

“We are working with the federal government to see how that program can be brought to Kalamazoo,” Chamberlin says, emphasizing again that the program would be voluntary.

Looking back, Bonner says, “Kalamazoo really showed up in a supportive way to do what we do—take care of one another." And the city got high marks from Edison Neighborhood Association Executive Director Tammy Taylor for its response to the flooding as it organized volunteers, sandbag deployment, and street closures. (The city ran out of barricades and had to rent them from a private company.)

The flood took its emotional toll, however, not only on those in its path but on those trying to assist them, largely because assistance could not be offered across city boundaries due to regulations regarding how federal dollars can be spent. There was a tearful public meeting as residents pleaded for assistance. 

“I don’t often have things that don’t allow me to sleep,” Bonner says. “But to have to come to work and tell people ‘I can’t help you.’ It was a hard thing for those of us with a heart for helping people. Most of us were feeling it.”

“Rain will never mean the same thing to me,” Bonner says. 

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Edison” series amplifies the voices of Edison Neighborhood residents. Over three months, Second Wave journalists will be embedded in the Edison Neighborhood to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Theresa Coty-O’Neil, please email her here or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here

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The On the Ground program is made possible by funding from the City of Kalamazoo, LISC, the Fetzer Institute, the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, Michigan WORKS!, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo.
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Read more articles by Kathy Jennings.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.