May 20, 2020 / 6:41 PM / 9 days ago

REFILE-UPDATE 1-Michigan hit with '500-year' flooding in midst of COVID-19 pandemic

(Corrects wording of first sentence)

By Maria Caspani and Rich McKay

May 20 (Reuters) - Rising floodwater, already as high as 5 feet (1.50 metres), submerged parts of the central Michigan town of Midland on Wednesday after days of heavy rain led to the failure of two dams and the evacuation of thousands of people.

The National Weather Service (NWS) warned of “life-threatening” flooding as water levels of the Tittabawassee River in Midland, about 120 miles northwest of Detroit, reached historic levels and were expected to continue rising.

“Never in my whole life have we seen the dam fail,” said Mark Bone, 53, a business owner and resident of Midland. “It flood real bad in ‘86, but never like this.”

Bone, who also serves as chairman of the Midland County Board of Commissioners, said no injuries or deaths had been reported as yet.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday called on the federal government to provide help to the state in responding to the flooding, which struck at a time when it is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

About 10,000 people have been evacuated in Midland County, Whitmer said, after days of heavy rain caused a swollen river to overflow its banks and breach the Edenville and Sanford dams.

“Experts are describing this as a 500-year event,” Whitmer told a news conference after a tour of the flood-hit areas. “It is going to have a major impact on community and on our state for the time to come.”

Whitmer warned the waters are expected to crest at 8 p.m. EST on Wednesday as she urged residents to evacuate.

“There’s an ongoing flooding in parts of Midland with several feet of water, covering some streets of downtown Midland,” NWS meteorologist Andrew Arnold told Reuters.

He said floodwater had already reached five feet in parts of downtown.

The extreme flooding comes as the state struggles with the economic and social fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, which could further strain resources and hamper the response to the crisis.

Video posted on social media showed high waters lapping around buildings in downtown Midland, partly submerging bridges and roads.

Bone said the village of Sanford, the site of one of the dams, has been hit the hardest.

“A lot of businesses are underwater. Luckily no one has died or been hurt,” he said.

He said that most people so far are sheltering out of town with friends and relatives, but he has not checked the shelters Wednesday morning.

“People are helping each other,” he said. “That’s the way we are. We’re a good old hometown Midwest.”

Chemical giant Dow Chemical, which is headquartered in Midland, said in a statement it was implementing its flood preparedness plan.

“All operating units on site have been safely shutdown, except for facilities needed for safely managing chemical containment, and all railcars are secured,” the statement said. (Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Nick Zieminski)

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