Gov. Whitmer on mid-Michigan floods: Devastation, possible legal action, peak flood level

State looking into possible legal action against dam owners

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the damaging floods in Midland County on May 20, 2020. (WDIV)

MIDLAND, Mich. – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer provided a complete update on the mid-Michigan floods, touching on the devastating damage to the community, possible legal action against the dam owners and when experts expect the peak water levels to arrive.

‘500-year event’

Whitmer spoke around 1 p.m. Wednesday after she had just completed an aerial tour of the catastrophic damage caused by two dams failing in Midland County.

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“We know that this water is incredibly damaging," Whitmer said. "It has meant the evacuation of thousands.”

The governor said experts consider the flood a “500-year event” that will have an affect on the state for a long time.

“I feel like I’ve said this a lot over the last 10 weeks, but this is an event unlike anything we’ve seen before," Whitmer said. "We’ve got to continue to all work together to observe best practices, do our part to help one another and to wear our masks and continue to try to social distance in this moment.”

A clear look at a road torn apart by water in Midland County on May 20, 2020. (WDIV)

Whitmer was referencing the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, which complicates the flood response even further. First responders working through the night to help people get to shelter, but they’re also trying to respect social distancing guidelines and avoid spreading COVID-19, Whitmer said.

UPDATE -- May 20, 2020: Michigan coronavirus cases up to 53,009; Death toll now at 5,060

So far, there have not been any reported casualties, according to the governor.

She has already issued a state of emergency and will ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency for support, hoping they’ll be able to speed along the process considering the dual threat of flooding and the virus.

“That’s why we are going to be very aggressive about getting help from our federal partners," Whitmer said.

Possible legal action

Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel announced they will explore any legal avenue available to help the residents who have had property or resources damaged by the flood.

“Regarding the dams, the state of Michigan is reviewing every potential legal recourse that we have, because this incredible damage requires that we hold people responsible, and we are pursuing and are going to pursue every line of legal recourse that we can," Whitmer said.

She said officials are trying to understand all the different proceedings that took place before the dams failed.

A building almost completely underwater in Midland County on May 20, 2020. (WDIV)

“The initial readout is that this was a known problem for awhile, and that’s why it’s important that we do our due diligence and then we take our action that’s merited," Whitmer said.

MORE: Catastrophic floods completely destroy roads around Midland County

“As Michigan continues to grapple with a deadly virus, our resiliency is being tested as the state is thrust into another emergency situation,” Nessel said. “My office will work with the governor to consider any and all legal options that are available to address this serious set of circumstances. Throughout our state’s history, Michiganders have come together in difficult times, and this time will be no different.”

Peak water levels expected Wednesday night

While the water levels have already destroyed homes, roads and property across the county, experts said the peak water level hasn’t even arrived.

Whitmer said the anticipated height of the water level will arrive around 8 p.m. Wednesday. The water is currently continuing to rise, albeit at a slower pace, she said.

“This is going to be hard, but we are anticipating several feet of water across this area," Whitmer said.

Anyone still in an affected area should evacuate and get somewhere safe, the governor said. About 10,000 have already evacuated, and it went “as well as something like this can go," according to Whitmer.

Midland residents looking for shelter can find it at Midland High School, Bullock Creek High School and the West Midland Family Center.

Whitmer said if you’re looking for more information, don’t call 911 unless it’s truly an emergency. Updated information can be found at or The Midland County Emergency Management Facebook page.

Sanford Dam update

Midland City Manager Brad Kaye offered an update on the state of the Sanford Dam, which failed but has not yet been reported as broken, unlike the Edenville Dam.

Kaye said the Sanford Dam is overflowing, with the majority of it -- 60-80% -- already overtopped.

“It’s not entirely clear what the structure is below the water surface," Kaye said.

School buses almost completely underwater in Midland County on May 20, 2020. (WDIV)

He said it continues to show significant overflow down the dam and toward the city

“We don’t know, quite frankly, whether the entire structure’s gone or only portions of it are gone beneath that water flow at this point in time," Kaye said. "But it is and will continue to release a significant amount of water from the lake behind it.

“Could it get worse? Yes. If the entire structure were to go and the water were to come in a very significant, serious, immediate impact, there would be a much higher surge that would come down the river and that could raise the level much more quickly than what we’re seeing right at the moment, so it is dangerous.”

‘The people of Michigan rise up’

Whitmer thanked first responders for working through the night and offered words of encouragement to the residents of Midland County.

“We’re going to get through this," Whitmer said. "It is a tough time, to be sure, but we are going to get through this. We know that tough times don’t last, but tough people do. We have seen a community come together, and we are going to continue to do that until we get through this crisis.

“It’s hard to believe we’re in the midst of a 100-year crisis, a global pandemic and that we’re also dealing with a flooding event that looks to be the worst in 500 year. But here what I know: When the chips are down, the people of Michigan are able to rise up. We are tough, we’re smart and we care about each other. As long as that guides our actions, we’re going to get through this, and we’re going to get through it together.”

You can watch Whitmer’s full comments in the video below.

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Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.