Detroit can be a haven from the destructive effects of climate change when compared to many other places. Last week’s system of tornadoes and powerful thunderstorms that left five people in Michigan dead made it clear we are not immune.
High winds and drenching rains knocked down trees, overran sewers and caused blackouts for hundreds of thousands of people.
The damage was a reminder that there’s a lot of work left to do — from the individual to the societal level — to prepare for the extreme weather headed our way due to climate change.
“We better get our shit together somehow,” said Birch Kemp, executive director of Arboretum Detroit, a nonprofit tree nursery. “I’ve lived here in Detroit in one place my whole life, so I know what the weather should look like, and it’s not this.”
To be sure, this was a massive storm where even the best preparations couldn’t have mitigated all the damage. But we could have done better.
Flooding and sewers
In just 24 hours, the storm outstripped Detroit’s rainfall average for the rest of August. All that water overwhelmed the area’s aging sewer infrastructure. The runoff filled up wastewater treatment plants in the region and overflowed into local waterways. All told, cities in the region released tens of millions of gallons of sewage, much of it untreated, into rivers and streams. This damages ecosystems and threatens drinking water supplies.
For instance, Grosse Ile, an island township south of Wyandotte, dumped 8.2 million gallons of raw sewage into the Detroit River after receiving more than four inches of rain in eight hours, according to a state environmental database. An out-of-service settling basin that could have held some of that overflow made the situation worse.
Communities throughout southeast Michigan have a lot of work to do to prepare their sewer systems for increasingly severe storms, said Kelly Karll, manager of the environment and infrastructure group for SEMCOG, an association of governments in southeast Michigan.
In Detroit, that would mean multi-billion dollar projects to repair and expand the existing stormwater system. Adding new trees can help, as can green stormwater projects that use plants to control runoff.
Individual Detroiters can support these efforts by planting rain gardens and reducing water consumption around storm events, Karll said. To prevent flooding, you can make sure your gutter downspouts are unobstructed and running away from your house. Sump pumps and sewer backup valves can also help, but they’re pricey. Financial help is available to Detroiters in nine flood-prone neighborhoods.
Preventing and preparing for blackouts
Most outages are caused by fallen tree branches, so better tree maintenance — especially trimming weak or dead branches — would reduce blackouts.
Commercial utilities like DTE are responsible for this work. After recording high profits during the pandemic, DTE was told by regulators to increase its tree-related spending. They spent $420 million in 2021 and 2022.
Upgrading aging power lines would also help avoid blackouts, also something DTE says it’s working on.
As long as they include a battery, residential or community solar projects can be a source of backup power in a blackout. Legislation that would make the technology more affordable for homeowners and community groups has been proposed in Lansing, but Michigan’s utilities oppose these plans.
Downed trees across the city marked the path of winds that exceeded 70 miles per hour in some places.
“Lots of big trees down, lots of big branches of trees down, especially maples in my neighborhood,” Kemp said. The morning after the storm, “I was out getting someone out of his house. We had to cut a tree up to get someone out of his house.”
Those trees were among Detroit’s best defenses against climate change (though quitting fossil fuels is the best of all). Shade from trees helps humans manage heat waves. Trees produce oxygen while absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Replanting should be a top priority from the government level down to individuals, Kemp said: “We can’t afford not to do it.”
The City and private partners are planning to raise $30 million over five years to plant 75,000 trees, but are in the early part of that process. The city has historically not planted enough trees to keep up with tree die-offs, and a lack of tree maintenance by the city has left many Detroiters hesitant to plant new trees on their property.
There are some cheap or free options for Detroiters who’d like to plant trees. Greening of Detroit, a local nonprofit, offers free trees and planting support to community organizations, including block clubs. Arboretum Detroit is holding a tree giveaway on Nov. 4 in exchange for two hours of volunteer work in its tree nursery.