With floodwaters still draining off I-94, how long the highway will be closed isn’t known. But there are ways to recover from future floods faster.
DETROIT, Mich.—Metro Detroit’s I-94 was less a vital corridor between Canada and Chicago, and more of a river between Detroit and Dearborn as June came to a close.
It came after a weekend of severe thunderstorms passed through Michigan, with follow-up storms crossing the state on Monday and Tuesday. The storm flooded the stretch of I-94 and knocked power off at pump stations designed to clear floodwaters, reported WWJ. The results were abandoned vehicles, stalled semi trucks, and countless homeowners calling restoration crews to salvage their belongings in nearby homes.
As of this reporting, large sections of the highway are still closed. Michigan’s Department of Transportation (MDOT) said roadways will need to be repaired.
Once the water entirely drains, the department will move on to towing away abandoned cars, before clearing mud and debris. Only at that point can the damage to the road itself be evaluated, officials said.
The main reason this stretch of highway is taking so long to reopen is the systems designed to mitigate flooding were entirely overwhelmed. About 30 pump stations along the stretch of highway lost power, and southeast Michigan’s water systems got completely overwhelmed.
With more storms passing over Michigan, repair and restoration efforts may be further delayed.
Preparing for Flooding Is an Infrastructure Challenge
The new American Jobs Plan includes more than $50 billion to modernize the water systems of the nation, including crucial stormwater systems that were unable to keep up with recent storms in metro Detroit. It’s part of President Joe Biden’s plans to update and modernize infrastructure problems communities are having, including Michigan’s 2021 flood.
But there are also ways the plan’s intended road repairs could help recovery from future floods where even a modernized water system fails: For instance, the repairs MDOT is expecting to need to perform on I-94 largely result from what’s called scour, and preventing scour could mean reopening important lanes of traffic sooner after floods.
Scour happens when enough water collects on a road to flow. Flowing water is an extremely powerful force, able to pull small bits of the road, and critically the road’s embankment, along with it. The longer a flood lasts the more scour occurs, and not addressing it quickly can lead to the road being washed away. Scour is even worse when it starts eroding overpasses as it can cause disastrous bridge failures.
In the case of I-94, MDOT expects to confront days of scour on the pavement. Some areas of the highway may need patching or resurfacing, and it’s likely the embankment may need repairs as well.
Because embankments typically hold roads above natural ground level to help hold back minor flooding and ease elevation changes in the terrain, a failed embankment causes the road itself to start failing. In the worst cases, this can outright collapse a section of road, as happened with 31 Mile Road in St. Clair over the past decade.
In 2018, the University of Minnesota found a solution to protect embankments better in future road design. Laying out a thin grid pattern called a geogrid and letting plant life grow in the soil through the grid helped protect the soil from erosion in their study.
As the Biden infrastructure plan is deployed, supporting highway embankments with one of these vegetated geogrids could massively slow the rate of soil erosion, and speed up road repairs during flood recoveries.
And with roads opened again faster, other flood recovery efforts can more easily get to the scene of damage, be that someone’s home or a breaking dam.
Immediate Steps to Draining One Big Great Lake
The weekend floods were severe enough for Michigan to declare a state of emergency in Wayne County June 26.
“The State Emergency Operations Center has been activated to coordinate our state’s response as we rush resources to affected areas, and the state of emergency declaration will help counties access even greater assistance,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement. “I want to thank everyone who has been working 24/7 to clear roadways, restore power and communications, provide emergency services, and make sure our neighbors have what they need to get through this storm. We’ve overcome tremendous challenges this year because Michiganders are a tough people who know that we are all in this together.”
Flooding extended well beyond just Wayne County. On the opposite coast of Michigan, Kalamazoo is also cleaning up after weekend storms, and preparing for the next round of floodwaters. Though it fared far better than the state’s east coast, the west side did have to clear downed trees, debris, and overwhelmed drainage systems.
While also comparatively minor, flooding rocked mid-Michigan as well, with homes being damaged by flooding in the Lansing area.
But as the imminent emergency resolves, it lays bare the infrastructural issues that underpin the severe flooding, chiefly the pumping stations and water systems of Michigan.