Since last Sunday, there was talk of flooding in mid-Michigan. Cautions and watches and projections were determined for the targeted counties and communities. There have been heavy rains, 4-7 inches, and rain run-off contributed to the catastrophe. Edenville Dam–long in need of repairs–failed, and then Sanford Lake dam could not contain the sudden onslaught of waters from the Edenville breach. Both were breached on Tuesday and by today there was more disaster as the Tittabawassee River crested.
It is being called a “500 year event.” And it seems unreal to me at this moment.
I grew up in the elegantly planned, inviting community–a model town for sciences and arts– that’s headlining news. Midland, Michigan, home to world headquarters of Dow Chemical Company. It is an unusual community for many reasons, not the least being all those PhDs and other innovators working at Dow Chemical and Dow Corning–and so many other capable persons hired for fine schools, community organizations and a private business college (Northwood University). These folks brought with them equally able-minded spouses and children. The future-thinking minds and a great tax base helped build state-of-the-art parks and recreation areas; public and private schools; an impressive performing arts center; libraries; community-wide programs for the less economically privileged as well as the well-to-do. It has been called the “city of churches” (over 100 in a variety of fine architectural styles) and has long showcased extraordinary homes. This is in part due to Alden B. Dow, who created contemporary, cleanly inspiring designs. Dow was a protege of Frank Loyd Wright and a son of Henry Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical Company, what has historically been the primary employer in the city. (The summer band which my father long had fun conducting was even called the Chemical City Band.)
It didn’t occur to me that I grew up in an unusual city–it was smallish, and population remains only 42,000 people, but is not a suburb to any metropolis. It was what I knew– until I began to travel a bit as a youth and become conscious of far greater diversity. Our town was primarily Caucasian with a considerable number of Asians and very few Hispanic residents in the mid-century. That made the culture usually similar from neighborhood to neighborhood. My curiosity was stimulated by broader experiences awaiting me by my mid-teens. I loved much in Midland–and family and friends–but there seemed much to be desired. Though excellence was the unofficial byword for all the city represented, I strongly desired to additionally avail myself of differentness. The unknown. (As an adult, I continued to hold admiring v. somewhat adversarial views of my hometown due to a few powerfully negative experiences–memoir shared in other WordPress posts and writings. )
It was, then, the rule not exception that those I knew were talented, ambitious and mostly well-educated. And it was to be that many are now heralded, even famous, persons. We were a city made of energetic leaders who intended to forge ahead. These were classmates of mine and my siblings, friendly neighbors. And also competitors, but that was the way we were taught from childhood and it seemed fair enough a long while.
When I left by 19, I was intent on getting to the Pacific Northwest and at 42, I got here and have been very happy in Oregon. Despite many of my schoolmates returning to this ideal environment, I had no desire to do so; we all find our preferred cultures and geography if we can. So it is clear that I have not had a stake in Midland’s fortunes or failures for a lifetime. My parents also passed away decades ago. I have not been back since 2001, even during a vacation in northern Michigan after that.
But the news came about the flood, and as small panic arose I blinked back flashes of tears. It was the undeniable visceral response to learning something I’ve long cared for is being harmed.
I thought, as I talked to my brother back east: our parents are buried above the river, under gracious trees, on a hill. The thought haunted me all night of their final resting places being soaked and worse.
I thought, oh no, the lovely Wixom Lake is being emptied out as floodwaters shoves and gathers its water along with it, carries it in a powerful thrust downstream. What of the fish and water plants, the boats and people left behind? Forgive me these sentiments. My childhood is reflected in large part by pictures whose backgrounds are water–small lakes, rivers and streams, the Great Lakes. Despite not having our own family cottage on a lake, friends did. My joys grew huge at any water’s edge–playing, swimming, water skiing, and boating in it. Dreaming, writing, singing by it. Falling in love, even. I learned how to make more friends at summer camps, grew strong in the wide outdoors each day. Gained passion for the intricacies and mysteries of nature.
Water–and woods–still figure greatly in what I do outdoors and write or dream about.
Now Midland’s downtown and large swaths of nearby areas are now under water and farther beyond also smaller towns. Even now it spills over the snaking, meandering Tittabawassee River as it continues to rise and wreak havoc. The extreme watchfulness must be overwhelming. At last tally, around 11,000 folks were being evacuated from Midland County.
That wide, mostly tranquil river’s song was pleasant background noise to me once. I played on swings, monkey bars and seesaws as a kid at the 50 acre Emerson Park. It lies on a flat area alongside the river; the land about it slopes down from a train track and Main Street above. It was not my favorite park (there were at least a half dozen then, over a dozen now) though I liked to ice skate in blowing snow on a frozen pond with buddies. We picnicked there from time to time with family, friends and our First United Methodist Church folks (just a few blocks away). My dad loved playing horseshoes; there was basketball and baseball and volleyball, hockey in winter. A good, all-around city park. We could walk a few short blocks to downtown from there for shopping or a pizza and lime Cokes. And all that time, the Tittabawassee River hummed and flowed, almost unnoticed sometimes until it rose a bit high.
But we were always warned not to put one toe in that river; it was polluted even in the fifties and sixties from Dow Chemical, which was built at its edge farther downriver. Anyone who dared jump in would be watched for signs of illness and severely warned to not do it again. It was a double-edged reality: Dow had built the city up yet seemed to imperil it at times.
We had milder flooding of the Tittabawassee; I recall it happening but not being alarming, at least to us–we lived too far from it. In 1986, there was another bad flood–but not like this one. Not enough to order 10,000 of Midland’s people to be evacuated.
It is this river that crested at 35.5 feet today, and has swamped the downtown and a vast many more acres, flooding homes and businesses, sending residents fleeing for higher ground, shelter. I try to imagine where it has all gone and how. Of course, forceful water moves where it chooses; unimpeded it can get to surprising places and when powerful and immense enough it carries or plows down everything in its way.
Then I read that Dow Chemical Company’s containment ponds have now mixed with the floodwater. There also could be sediment from a downstream Superfund site (with dioxin contamination) displaced. So future hazards are largely unknown. As home base for a worldwide chemical company, Midland may be seriously impacted. Time will tell.
And all this amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is unimaginable to me how this can be survived with clear, functioning minds so recovery can begin. Yet I am assured by old friends that massive efforts are gearing up.
As I write this, happier times of childhood in Midland come forward and recede. The day camp each summer for years, the long walks in Barstow Woods by my house, sunny days at Central Park outdoor swimming pool and inside the red brick Community Center where in winter so much fun was to be discovered within the two stories one could not be bored: the damp, sharp scent of chlorine that hung in the air as I practiced jack knife and swan dives in the indoor pool, swam laps. The outdoor rink where I practiced figure skating after school, sharp edges of my blades scraping, slicing the thick ice. The stages, bracketed by heavy black velvet curtains, where I warmed inside and out in the slow heat of stage lights, and sang, danced and acted or played my cello with orchestras–or solo, and when playing to win competitions.
No, the pictures I hold close are not those in the news as the unleashed water rises higher and higher. I think I want to know if the street I grew up on–over-arched by big oak and maple trees and encompassing several blocks of my childhood friends’ homes, my playground, my whole world then– is intact, yet I don’t look. Sometimes it is best to let good memories remain safely, orderly within life’s mental and emotional archives. Because what’s going on out there is not easy to contemplate. How do I consider the whys and hows of it, what such floodwater destruction may render things? It has long been a realm of creativity, industry and educational progress–right now, a far different place, at least materially speaking. Yet, surely, Midland can overcome even this and rebuild as it has had to do before.
I know this is also a sign of the reality as climate changes increase and graver challenges and losses occur. And we must withstand it as the best minds race to find interventions, and we gain more tools via which we can survive and adapt further.
I wonder what small, ordinary Snake Creek is up to in Barstow Woods right now. How often it provided me deep peace and pleasure. Is there still the sweet chiming of gentle water as it slides between pungent earth of shallow banks, winds past white paper birches and gatherings of tiny wildflowers–or has it been swallowed up, doomed for at least a season? Please keep running clear and bright.
From my heart I offer a prayer for rescue, recovery, and deeper healings.
2 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Words/ Nonfiction: Thoughts on My Hometown During Historic Flooding”
What a shocker
Indeed, unexpected disaster–floods are not so uncommon in MI., but not such as this due to two mammoth dam breaches.