July 12, 2021

Detroit household flood report gives overview, solutions to decades-long issue

The same day Detroit and surrounding communities recently experienced yet another damaging flood, a Wayne State University-led report was released addressing the very issue.

But it wasn’t planned — it was because flooding in Detroit homes is nothing new, and that’s the problem. Oftentimes, these floods can lead to financial hardship, health concerns and even displacement.

And while this new report — “Household Flooding in Detroit: A Snapshot of Citywide Experiences, Implications for Public Health, and Potential Solutions” — gives an overview of the under-acknowledged public health emergency, it also offers key suggestions that may begin to address this widespread problem and underlying inequities.

Miller

“This is an issue that Wayne State University has held a leadership position on for quite some time,” said Carol Miller, WSU professor of civil and environmental engineering. “We have always been concerned about environmental justice issues associated with water infrastructure — that includes drinking water, stormwater and wastewater runoff, and treatment.”

Coordinated by WSU’s Healthy Urban Waters, of which Miller is director, the report was put together with the help of the University of Michigan, Sierra Club and community groups. It was funded by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.

The report shares key findings from a related door-to-door survey conducted by Wayne State’s Center for Urban Studies, in which 43% of 4,667 Detroit households surveyed between 2012-2020 reported household flooding. “And until major changes are made to the system, we can expect to see these sorts of occurrences and more frequently. No question,” Miller said.

A major contributor to the flooding issues (and especially the June 25, 2021 event) is that Detroit is one of 860 cities across the U.S. with a combined sewer system, according to the report. During heavy rainfall the system's capacity can be overwhelmed, leaving untreated sewage frequently discharged into the Rouge and Detroit Rivers. Household and neighborhood flooding may (and often does) lead to sewage exposure.

The report’s suggestions to prevent household flooding include:

  • Major infrastructure updates
  • Prioritized maintenance of vacant lots and flood prone areas
  • Process improvements for flood-related claims and ensured equity in settlements
  • Addressing remaining research and policy questions
  • Landlords accountability for flood prevention and response
  • Developing grants and technical assistance programs to support household flood-related maintenance

Of the many key takeaways from the surveys cited in the report — how primarily Black communities were found to be at high risk for household flooding, even when controlling for household and neighborhood factors. Flooding in Detroit contributes to negative health outcomes for residents and disproportionately impacts communities of color and those who lack the resources to recover from flooding events.

Thompson

“Those surveys clearly show that over 60% of Detroit residents report flooding events, even before the most recent flooding occurred,” said Lyke Thompson, director of the Center for Urban Studies and a professor in the Department of Political Science. “Given the increasing frequency and intensity of these events, both the state and the city must invest more in protecting the health and safety of residents by investing in their homes. Otherwise, we will surely see more asthma, allergies, lead poisoning and other health issues.”

The issue is only going to get worse, too. Regional climate change models project increasing frequency, duration and severity of rain events with rising water levels over the next 25 years, according to the report. In the Midwest, for example, the amount of precipitation falling in the 1% heaviest rain events has increased by 37% since the mid-20th century.

“In response to these huge rainfalls, it will require a more integrated approach and will be very expensive,” Miller said. “Everyone (the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and the Great Lakes Water Authority) is clearly aware of what we’re saying. We’re not telling them anything they don’t already know, but it’s having the will to come up with a plan and put together the funding sources that are going to be necessary for any change to happen.”

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