A Detroit child plays near a car on a flooded freeway June 26 after a storm left thousands of Detroiters with destroyed property and flooded basements. (Stephen McGee photo)

After a chaotic month of heavy rains, water pump failures and intermittent flooding, Detroiters will finally receive assistance. 

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Last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared Detroit’s June flood events an environmental emergency, making federal aid available for Detroiters. Those seeking reimbursement for flood damage from the June 25-26 storm must submit paperwork and evidence to FEMA no later than Monday, Sept. 13 at 11:59 p.m. If residents are denied, they can file an appeal within 60 days, and Mayor Mike Duggan has urged those turned down to apply again; denials often are because of simple errors like a missing field on a form. Detroiters may also file for assistance from local and regional entities, such as the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) and the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), within 45 days of any water-related issue. Monday, Sept. 9 is the deadline for June’s floods. 

FEMA spent two weeks setting up local offices in and around Detroit, and is meeting with residents affected by flooding to determine eligibility for assistance and reimbursement. This summer’s environmental disaster has pushed local, state and national governments to consider the needs of Detroiters as residents continue to demand support, accountability and transparency. During this chaotic time, a resignation has occurred, a petition for another has gone out, and City Council has questioned which entity should own responsibility for the water pumps. 

FEMA is in Detroit

Thousands have already filed flood claims through GLWA, DWSD, DTE Energy and FEMA in hopes of reimbursement for ruined home appliances, property damage and costs associated with sanitizing and cleaning. The assistance from FEMA will help many Detroiters who are uninsured or underinsured and suffered flood damage from the June 25-26 storm. 

FEMA has not agreed to support Detroiters affected by other flood incidents. The federal agency designated over $50 million for assistance by August 9. According to FEMA, 20,345 assistance applications have been approved so far in Michigan for June’s severe storms, flooding and tornados. 

FEMA dollars will be used for housing grants, short-term rental assistance and home repair costs. The federal funding is also expected to assist Detroiters with medical, dental and some lost personal possessions. 

Mayor Mike Duggan called President Joe Biden’s influence and FEMA’s assistance “nothing short of remarkable,” during a press conference with FEMA representatives on Wednesday. 

FEMA dollars can be used only to make spaces liveable and safe, not restore a lifestyle or basement rec room. The federal agency is likely to replace items like a furnace, hot water heater, costs to repair electrical or roof damage, and reimburse Detroiters for services like removing sewage or mold. 

Duggan told Detroiters earlier this week that FEMA assistance, including grants, will not jeopardize eligibility for other assistance programs like Social Security or Medicaid. 

Congresswomen Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, and Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, also attended the press briefing.

Tlaib reminded Detroiters that state emergency relief assistance and energy assistance is available to all Michiganders — including renters. Tlaib said she went door-to-door in Southeast Michigan and saw seniors who were still struggling to get debris out of their basements.  

“You’re not alone,” she said. “You don’t have to do it all alone. We are here to help.”   

Political finger-pointing

At the end of July, the CEO of GLWA, the regional institution responsible for pumping rain and wastewater out of Detroit sewers, resigned. 

Sue McCormick wrote a letter to GLWA staff notifying them of her pending resignation July 27, the same day Detroit City Council criticized GLWA’s lack of communication to Detroiters and overall leadership. McCormick began attending Detroit City Council meetings in July with DWSD representatives to give updates on the mass flooding. 

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones said in July that the lack of communication between water service leaders and the community at-large is “a huge problem.” 

“We’re getting wore out for something that ain’t even our job,” Jones said about calls from constituents to council members regarding flood issues. Jones called the lack of leadership from GLWA “truly ridiculous,” and said she needed to calm herself down before allowing other councilmembers to speak on the issue. 

Councilman Benson questioned the “court-mandated relationship” between the City of Detroit and GLWA that began due to the City’s bankruptcy in 2013. He said the partnership is currently “unacceptable.”

“Is this a management issue?” Benson asked during the meeting. “And when is it time that we re-evaluate our relationship with GLWA? If GLWA cannot manage the system nor handle it properly, then give it back.”

Following McCormick’s resignation, a press release from GLWA said the CEO had planned to leave for “over a year and a half,” but had stayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. McCormick has led GLWA since its inception in January 2016. The authority has made infrastructure improvements and built collaborative partnerships over the last five years, according to the press release. McCormick’s last day at GLWA is Aug. 11.

Filing local claims

Knowing which entity to file paperwork and receipts for reimbursement with doesn’t have to be tricky, but it may be time-consuming. Some say Detroiters should have filed across all entities by Aug. 9. FEMA dollars will go to underinsured and uninsured Detroiters, local reimbursements will heavily rely on whether there is proof that local entities failed to do their job, and will cover any flood event event after June 25.

GLWA told BridgeDetroit that they have not yet approved nor denied any claims, and that Detroiters have until Aug. 10 to file. The Blue Hill pump station, which serves Detroit’s Cornerstone neighborhood, had an “external power quality issue” on July 16, according to Michelle Zdrodowski, chief public affairs officer at GLWA. The water authority contends all other pump stations in Detroit have been ready or repaired since June 30.

DWSD’s counsel told Detroiters during the council meeting that they should file claims across all entities for reimbursement. Residents can also file an appeal if they are denied the first time. The City’s Department of Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity can assist Detroiters with language barriers filling out their paperwork. 

Detroiters filed 33,000 claims to DWSD related to three major rain events between June 25 and July 27. About 27,000 of those claims are for flooding from the June 25-26 weekend, and 13,000 have been investigated for water in the basement. However, DWSD says none of the claims has been reviewed.

DWSD told BridgeDetroit they will begin processing claims on Aug. 9 and expect the process to last several months. The water department will address structural damage and will consider the impact on basic necessities.

“The intent is to restore the flood-damaged area for safe living conditions,” Bryan Peckingpaugh, DWSD spokesperson said.

DWSD maintains the underground collection system and stormwater management projects while GLWA manages the pump stations. Both the Conner Creek and Freud pumping stations have failed in the past month and serve the lower east side of the city, not the west side.

“If there was no known defect and the cause was the rainstorm overwhelming the combined sewer system, the claim will be denied. In most cases, of the approximately 27,000 claims, it is expected the flooding was a matter of the rainstorm overwhelming the design standards of the existing combined sewer system,” DWSD told BridgeDetroit on July 21.

“The hard part is telling people to be patient,” Palencia Mobley, deputy director and chief engineer at DWSD told the City Council. “We understand the challenges of our customer base, and we know what the poverty levels are like. We want to do everything we can.”

But some Detroiters have little faith in approved claims from the City, due to past experiences. Some have even joined class-action lawsuits against the City and DTE Energy. 

Calls for accountability

DWSD Director Gary Brown joined last months City Council meeting to reassure Detroiters that the water department is doing everything it can to assist homeowners. 

“When we’re wrong, we say we’re wrong, and we respond accordingly,” he said, referring to the $1.3 million in claims made to Jefferson Chalmers residents following the July 8 and Aug. 16, 2016, floods.

A small group of Detroiters have signed a petition urging the DWSD board to fire Brown. As director, Brown is responsible for all DWSD operations and supervises the executive team that also includes mayoral appointments. Brown was appointed by the Board of Water Commissioners and then approved by the mayor. Esmat Ishag-Osman, a research associate at the Citizens Research Council, says the petitions can only pressure the board to consider firing Brown.

“There is nothing in the charter that authorizes the public to provide a certain amount of signatures that would be able to remove him from his post. That is the authority of the mayor and the Board of Water Commissioners,” Ishag-Osman wrote to BridgeDetroit in an email.

The Change.org petition has fewer than 200 signatures, and DWSD told BridgeDetroit it had no response to the petition.

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