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On May 19, the Edenville and Sanford Dams, which are part of a four-dam system near Midland, Michigan, failed following 48 hours of heavy rainfall—forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents and creating catastrophic flooding and property losses.

With preliminary damages estimated to be around $250 million, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), the dam failure has left the affected communities of Arenac, Gladwin, Iosco and Midland counties with an influx of flood debris.

“Flood waters are contaminated with various chemicals, sanitary overflows, etc., so the waste that is set out to the curb is considered a public health hazard,” says Karen Murphy, director of public services for the city of Midland. “[After a flood], the volumes of waste drastically increase, along with the type of materials set out for collection. The result is a lot of household waste and paint, which normally isn’t accepted curbside, that residents need help disposing of since it’s contaminated with flood waters.”

FLOOD RISKS

According to Murphy, describing the impact of the flood on waste volumes as a “surge” is an understatement.

“Residents had water to the rafters in their basements, and some residents had water [rise] into the main level of their homes,” she says.

"In this case, we knew that at a minimum, there was sanitary sewer overflow in the flood waters that inundated many residences in the city. This knowledge alone led us to taking extra precautions.” –Karen Murphy, director of public services for the city of Midland.

The flood, which crested at 35 feet in Midland (the highest level on record in Midland and more than a foot above the previous high mark in 1986), left operators at the city’s wastewater plant with the difficult decision to turn off a handful of sanitary sewer lift stations, says Murphy. Because of this, some residents were left with sewage in their basements and had to dispose of virtually everything that was inundated with flood waters.

“In my experience, we always consider flood waters to be contaminated with unknown materials, and therefore, our crews treat any flood debris as contaminated,” Murphy says. “In this case, we knew that at a minimum, there was sanitary sewer overflow in the flood waters that inundated many residences in the city. This knowledge alone led us to taking extra precautions.”

Although flood debris can pose a number of risks to waste personnel, a main stressor for Midland’s Department of Public Service (DPS) was the associated public health hazard. With residents frantic to get their flood-soaked debris out of their homes, many weren’t thinking about the safest way to set materials on the curb, Murphy admits.

“There is glass, nails sticking out of boards, household hazardous waste and other physical hazards that crews must be extremely careful with [collecting],” she says. “While the bulk of collection was done with heavy equipment to minimize the handling of materials, crew members were still out of their trucks reminding residents and onlookers to stay clear of the debris crew, as well as directing traffic around the crews. Watching for hazards in the debris itself added a layer of concern to the operation.”

TACKLING THE DEBRIS

To help facilitate the city’s need for increased waste disposal, Midland DPS got straight to work. Two days following the flood, the city expanded its monthly heavy item collection program to seven days a week and up to 12 hours per day. According to Murphy, waste collection crews continued this schedule for three-and-a-half weeks.

“Once the flood hit, the heavy item crew was diverted to flood debris cleanup,” she says. “The size of the crew was increased to [include] all three of the city’s front-end loaders and 15 tandem-axle garbage trucks.”

Murphy adds that the volume of debris following the Edenville Dam collapse was so great that Midland hired out additional contractors to provide the city’s waste crews with much-needed assistance in the form of personnel, trucks and heavy equipment.

Beyond the added work for collection personnel, the city’s maintenance staff was called upon to help keep the city’s fleet out on the road.

“Midland’s fleet services crews worked expanded hours to ensure mechanics were on the clock during all debris collection efforts to keep the trucks and heavy equipment in service,” she says.

The city of Midland also issued several press releases to the public regarding when to set items to the curb and what to expect with regard to timing for collection.

Murphy says Midland is no stranger to being prepared for annual flooding thanks to it being located in a flood plain. In 2017, Midland experienced a significant flood that resulted in several hundred homes with flooded basements. By providing expanded flood debris collection with in-house crews, DPS was able to complete flood debris collection in two weeks.

“The lesson we learned in 2017 provided the road map we needed to address the May 2020 flood,” Murphy says. “In addition, Midland County’s emergency management team had completed a tabletop training exercise in 2019 that addressed what our response would be should the Edenville Dam fail—this was extremely helpful in our actual response to the flood/dam failure when it actually occurred.”

OVERCOMING CHALLENGES

Even with the county’s preparation for post-flood waste collection, Midland still faced overwhelming obstacles dealing with the increased volumes.

“The city provided multiple rounds of collection in certain neighborhoods simply because there wasn’t room on the tree lawn for residents to pile all their debris,” Murphy says. “As soon as the city trucks could make it down a street in the heavily flooded neighborhoods to clear debris, residents were right back out there loading up the tree lawns with more debris.”

She adds, “There were sections of town where the tree lawns were piled 6 feet high and 10 feet wide [down] the entire street, with the only break in the piles at each driveway. The volume was unbelievable and heartbreaking.”

With the burdensome workload of getting Midland’s streets clear of waste, Murphy says fatigue among employees was a big concern, with many crews working around the clock for roughly a week to respond to flooded streets and parks.

“The same crews who placed road closure barricades and monitored streets to keep residents safe were the crews that turned around and provided flood debris collection,” she says. “Providing a safe place for [crews] to take breaks, ensuring that supervisors checked in with everyone on a regular basis, and providing snacks and drinks [for personnel] was helpful.”

Once flood debris collection was completed, Murphy says the city brought in a counselor from Midland’s employee assistance program to meet with crews in socially distanced groups to learn about critical stress management practices.

“We wanted to provide resources to help employees who had spent countless hours hauling away people’s debris,” she says. “It was mentally tough on the crews to experience the devastation.”

In order to provide additional flood relief to the areas affected by the Edenville Dam failure, the Michigan House of Representatives approved legislation on Sept. 1 to provide $6 million to the communities of Gladwin and Midland. The funding will provide matching contributions for available cleanup grants, debris removal, and emergency protective measures such as sheltering, evacuation and chemical contamination cleanup efforts.

The author is the assistant editor of Waste Today and can be reached at hrischar@gie.net.