As the seasons change, more rain is on the way – but Detroiters are still struggling to recover from last summer’s extensive flooding. Thousands of residents are still waiting to hear whether they will get federal money to help with flood damage, we reported last week. 

Outlier, Planet Detroit and Detroit Free Press journalists have reported out what you need to know about getting help after a flood or preparing yourself for the future. Here’s a brief explainer with the highlights and further reading if you want to dig deeper.

Do you have a question about flooding in Detroit, or were you affected by flooding this past summer and haven’t gotten the help you need? Text “DETROIT” to 67485 and tell us to follow up with you.

Remind me: What was the deal with the 2021 Detroit flooding?

Last summer, it rained so hard and for so long in Detroit that the aged combined sewer system just couldn’t take it. The quantity of rain that fell during the June 25-26 storm overwhelmed treatment plants and overflow storage. To make things worse, two pumping stations, designed to move water from low-lying areas, failed

The water pooled up in the sewers and then went wherever it could, seeping into basements across the city, but especially in its lowest-lying areas. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department described June’s storm as not just rain, but a “rain event.”  

When the clouds parted, tens of thousands of Detroiters were left with basements full of sewage and water, damaged appliances and ruined belongings – even before the flooding that occurred in July and August

Could this level of flooding happen again in Detroit?

It is a question of when, not if, Detroit will next get hit by storms like last summer’s. Climate change produces “greater swings and extremes between dry and wet,” a water resources specialist explained to Planet Detroit last year – even if we’re not getting more precipitation overall, it could come in larger quantities at a time.  

Detroit’s combined sewer system, however, was built in the 1800s and is simply not designed to take it. Upgrading the large and aging sewer system would help, but with cost estimates between $5 billion and $20 billion, city and county officials say replacement would be prohibitively expensive.

So for now, mitigating flooding is the name of the game, whether that means greener city infrastructure or basement back-up prevention (more on this below).  

Are Detroiters getting the help they need to pay for all the June 2021 flood damage?

Some Detroiters are getting help paying for costly cleanups and repairs, but many have not gotten all the help they need. Others have gotten no help at all. None of the government programs offering assistance for flood damage are still taking applications.

Because the floods affected so many people, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asked the federal government to declare the floods a major disaster, and President Joe Biden granted the request, freeing up about $188 million in federal dollars that could help people across metro Detroit (and in Ionia, where a tornado caused by the same storm system touched down). 

As of March 1, nearly 39,000 households in the city that submitted flood damage claims to the Federal Emergency Management Agency had gotten some money, Miriam Marini and Dana Afana reported for Outlier and the Detroit Free Press. But 14,163 households were denied and another 8,204 are still waiting for a response to their claims. 

The Great Lakes Water Authority and DWSD also encouraged people to document their flood damage and file claims last summer, but so far they have left those applicants waiting. Marini and Alfana reported most of the nearly 20,000 claims filed with DWSD will likely be denied on the grounds that it was the amount of rain, not system “defects,” that caused the flooding, according to initial engineering studies. Under Michigan law, the city could be held responsible if there was a sewer defect — it knew about or should have known about — that it didn’t fix and was 50% or more at fault for the flooding.

GLWA told the reporters they’ve not resolved any of the approximately 24,000 claims metro Detroiters have filed, including about 3,900 claims filed by Detroit residents.

Is there assistance available to prevent flooding at my home? 

Many basement backups can be prevented by installing a backwater prevention valve. This can be expensive, but the city is offering to help through a program targeting 11 neighborhoods this spring and summer. The program includes inspection, backwater valve and/or sump pump installation and covers some costs up to $6,000 per home. Low-income residents who are enrolled in metro Detroit’s Water Residential Assistance Program to help them pay water bills may be able to get additional costs covered. 

Residents of those 11 neighborhoods can apply here – phase one work begins in May, for residents of Aviation Sub and Victoria Park; phase two work gets started later in the summer and covers Barton-McFarland, Chadsey Condon, Garden View, Cornerstone Village, East English Village, Jefferson Chalmers, Morningside and Moross-Morang. 

DWSD Director Gary Brown also told Marini and Alfana that in May, the city is set to begin offering a service and sewer line warranty program for about $8 a month, through vendor American Water. 

“If your basement backs up because your sewer line is blocked, they’ll clean it. If your sewer (or service) line is broken, they’ll replace it,” Brown said.

The department released a guide with other steps Detroiters can take to prevent basement flooding and a breakdown of how responsibilities are divided among homeowners and different government agencies. 

Who can I turn to if my home is flooded in the future?  

Community organizations including Jefferson East, Inc. and the Eastside Community Network have provided help to residents. Jefferson East has a Neighborhood Resource Hub for residents of Lafayette Park, Elmwood Park, The Villages, The Marina District and Jefferson Chalmers. Residents can call 313-314-6414 for the Hub. Eastside residents can also get connected to flooding resources through the Eastside Community Network. 

Homeowners insurance typically does not cover damage from flooding, but some homeowners have reported getting some help this summer from their insurers. In areas that are prone to flooding, FEMA requires homeowners with mortgages to pay for flood insurance. FEMA is now requiring this for some areas of Detroit. Enter your address here to see if this applies to you.

The Small Business Administration also provides no-interest loans to businesses, homeowners and renters affected by natural disasters. Some Detroit residents were awarded loans after last year’s floods. 

How could the city be more flood-proof?

There are several ideas on the table, like a project to divert stormwater from I-94; green infrastructure projects on the west side; and Mayor Mike Duggan’s suggestion that we expand sewer capacity on the far east and west sides of the city and send combined sewage directly into the Detroit River. 

Planet Detroit’s Brian Allnut has more on these proposals and others in a rundown of experts’ takes on potential ways to fix and pay for Detroit’s flooding problems. One final, interesting note: Experts think Detroit’s surplus of abandoned property and empty land is already functioning as “passive green infrastructure” that takes pressure off the sewer system, so expensive projects might not offer much more protection. 

Do you have a question about flooding in Detroit, or were you affected by flooding this past summer and haven’t gotten the help you need? Text “DETROIT” to 67485 and tell us to follow up with you.

Sarah (she/her) believes the best local reporting is a service, responds directly to community needs and reduces harm. Her favorite place in Detroit is her backyard on a summer evening.