When It Rains in Detroit

When It Rains in Detroit

Even an ordinary rainfall in the Motor City can prompt devastating floods, turning the fortunes of many upside down.


On of the main streets that divides Detroit from its southwestern neighbor, Dearborn, doesn’t shift elevation or air pressure. A rain gauge on either side of Tireman Road wouldn’t register much difference in precipitation, and the trees that straddle its northern and southern curbs can claim no ecological advantage over their counterparts. And yet, in the age of climate crisis, streets like Tireman are where the objective science of climate change meets the subjective machinery of American urban policy to produce rifts as profound as the greatest continental divides.

Dayale and Eric Grays live on the Detroit side of that divide, just five houses north of Tireman. Around 3 am on June 26, Dayale’s 14-year-old son woke her up. “I think you want to see this,” he said, waving her to the basement. The water was up to the second step and rising. “Go get your dad.” One of the basement freezers, still plugged in, was bobbing in the water and buzzing violently. They called the fire department, but no one showed up. Eric opened the front door and couldn’t see the street or the sidewalk or the tires on the Comcast truck he drives to work every day. The entire block was nearly porch-high in raw sewage water.

The rainfall that flooded the Grays’ home—seven inches in 12 hours—was more intense than Detroit’s last great flood, in 2014, which caused $1.8 billion in damage. This summer, the local and national media were inundated with images of drowned semis on I-94—the interstate that runs through Detroit looked like a sixth Great Lake. Thousands of homes were submerged, and over 350 cars had been drowned and totaled by the afternoon, requiring the rescue of dozens of people. And yet few think of Detroit as a center of the climate crisis. The amount of rainfall may not have compared to the 8.4 inches that Hurricane Ida dumped on some parts of the New York City region, after its long march from the Gulf Coast, or to the more than 20 inches that fell on Houston during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Days after the June flood, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan explained the damage by blaming the unexpected amount of rain: “Nobody designs systems to handle two months of rain in one day,” he said. But the reality that Detroit’s weather extremes won’t top any national charts is precisely why they’re so dangerous. The city’s existing vulnerabilities, rooted in decades of disinvestment and compound harm, give pulverizing force to even ordinary rainfall. And it’s likely that heavy rains will only get heavier and more frequent.

When the Grays were approved for their first mortgage less than two years ago, they considered buying a home on the other side of Tireman, but every realtor they contacted would suddenly vanish after their first contact. Dayale and Eric were disappointed but not surprised. Half a century after Malcolm X mentioned Dearborn as the town “where some real Ku Klux Klan live” in his “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, it’s still extremely hard for Black Detroiters to buy property there. Dearborn’s median household income is nearly double that of Detroit and the median home value roughly triple.

The remodeled colonial that the Grays bought was close enough to what they were looking for, they thought, and it was a big step up. It wasn’t always easy. Dayale has skin cancer, and her brother was just exonerated after serving 27 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Eric grew up in foster care. But they seemed to have done everything under their control right. “We set out looking for something better, something more,” than their last home in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, Dayale says. Their determination to give their kids a better life is palpable, unshakable. Dayale and Eric are the consummate American strivers.

Their home is clean and sunny, and before the flood, the Grays’s basement was bustling at all hours of the day, a locus of work and play. On one side, Dayale had a mini salon where she did hair for some extra income. On another, Eric hosted friends for Monday Night Football, fight nights, and everyday unwinding. The kids played there, escaping the brutal heat in the coolest room in the house. Eric’s brother, recently paroled and getting back on his feet, had much of his belongings down there.

After the flood: furnace, water heater, washer and dryer—gone. Two large freezers, couches, bedding for five, food for months, clothes for years—gone. Laptops, TVs, books. And then there’s the basement itself: tile, drywall, cabinets, fireplace, mold remediation. Their 4-year-old has asthma, and he’s not allowed downstairs without a mask on. If the Grays were to claim their losses on a form, they would total at least $35,000. That’s roughly a third of their home’s value, not counting the lost income from Dayale’s salon. When a representative from FEMA arrived weeks after the flood, he offered them around $4,000 “for the essential items only.” They were invited to apply for a Small Business Association homeowner’s loan to make up the rest, and they did—twice. They were denied. The Grays want to know why the City of Detroit isn’t holding up its end of the bargain. “Who dropped the ball here?” Dayale demands. “Because I didn’t. We didn’t.”

Michelle Martinez, acting executive director of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, says the long arc of disinvestment and racial injustice in Detroit have more explanatory force than the unusual amount of rainfall. “The climate crisis is not causing flooding necessarily, failing infrastructure is what’s causing the flooding—it’s just compounded by a 500-year or a 1,000-year rainfall,” she told me. What it really comes down to, she said, is “mass disinvestment of the largest municipality in Michigan with the largest proportion of Black residents in the United States, racial injustice, and enormous amounts of corporate power embedded in our elections and power structures.”

For the Grays, one day of rain in this “comeback” city reversed the physics of American homeownership toward downward mobility. Now the choices that face them aren’t really choices at all: it’s the basement or the mortgage, the mortgage or their lungs. Every rainy day since June 26 has dumped more water into the pile of bedding they once tucked their kids in with. What used to be the liveliest part of their home is now a makeshift retention basin. The Grays are paying more than ever for two-thirds of a home. They’re worried about the winter and the snowmelt that will bring more toxins in, the furnace that will circulate mold spores into what’s left of their crowning achievement.

“My thing is, be fair,” Eric says. “We all suffer the same. We went from at least being comfortable in our home to struggling, because now we’re truly struggling.” Dayale is more direct: “Why did they get help and we get crumbs?” It’s one street, they repeat. The Grays are one side, pulling their weight with strength and industry. And still, they cannot carry the weight of history.

Detroit’s so-called decline is well-documented, and there’s a sort of sadism common to those from outside the city who present Detroit as a bygone wasteland. But three parallel threads since World War II capture most of the story. The first is the legacy of housing segregation, beginning with government-backed redlining in 1939, that denied untold wealth to Black communities and made Detroit into what it is today: the most segregated city in America. The second is the decline of manufacturing, starting with a major outflow of auto industry capital from the city center into the suburbs, which began in the late 1940s and continued for decades. Third is the steady decline of the city’s population—and its tax base—from a peak of 1.8 million residents in 1950 to roughly 640,000 today.

The racialized poverty in Detroit is the offspring of these harms, compounded over generations. Detroit has the second highest poverty rate of any major US city, and a median household income of $30,894, compared to $57,144 in the rest of Michigan and $68,703 nationally. Over 60 percent of Detroit renters are “housing burdened,” meaning they spend over 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities.

Perhaps most egregiously, the city is a gateway to the largest freshwater system on earth, yet water is unaffordable to roughly half of city residents. A common benchmark of water affordability is 3 percent of one’s income. The average water bill for a Detroit family of four has nearly doubled since 2007, to an annual sum of $1,151. (In 2014, the city initiated the most sweeping residential water shutoff in American history, terminating service to over 20,000 people for lack of payment.) By contrast, the same family in Phoenix pays just $399 per year for water services, despite being hundreds of miles away from its freshwater source.

Three-quarters of these exorbitant bills paid by Detroiters go toward sewer and drainage fees, the latter of which is determined by the amount of impervious surfaces on a resident’s property. If all of Detroit’s sewer lines were arranged into one mega pipeline, it could reach Mexico City and still have over 700 miles to spare. The nearly 3,000 miles of sewer infrastructure was designed for Detroit’s peak population of nearly 2 million. Now the cost of maintaining that sprawling and aging machinery falls onto 640,000 Detroiters, a third of whom live below the poverty line.

Like more than 700 other US cities, Detroit uses a combined sewer system, which means rainwater and wastewater collect in the same pipes. The region’s combined sewers were so overwhelmed on June 26 that over 3 billion gallons of diluted raw sewage had to be discharged into Michigan waterways, a process known as Combined Sewer Overflow, a distressingly common way to prevent backups at the cost of waterway pollution.

Scholars who study urban flooding have identified less intense but recurrent household flooding—as distinct from catastrophic flooding—as a psychological menace that doesn’t get the same type of attention or corrective resources. It’s the type of menace that torments Detroiters on a near-daily basis, according to Pete Larson, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Michigan. Recurrent floods are “shockingly regular,” Larson says, and linked to “lots of trauma, psychological impacts, depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse.”

In a survey of Detroit households, Larson and a team of researchers found that household flooding is far more common than previously understood, with 43 percent reporting having experienced flooding between 2012 and 2020. “As a society,” Larson says, “we still have this biblical idea of floods.… people fail to take it seriously [because] they think it’s an economic issue, but it’s actually extremely serious for the people involved.” They also found that renters are 1.7 times more likely to experience flooding than homeowners, and adults and children with asthma were significantly more likely to live in homes battered by recurrent floods. Detroit’s rate of asthma hospitalizations is already triple that of the rest of the state, and the consistent pooling of one to two inches of water in a basement due to sewer backups is a recipe for respiratory disaster.

One of Larson’s colleagues, Lyke Thompson, a political scientist who directs the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, sees a larger story about politics shrinking the realm of what’s possible. “This was a fairly predictable event,” he says of the June flood, “because we’d already had a preview in 2014. Both in 2014 and now in 2021, it’s very clear that the era of austerity in Michigan is interacting with the consequences of climate change.”

According to a June report from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), Michigan trails all of its Midwestern peers in infrastructure investment, devoting 6.4 percent of annual spending compared to a national average of 10.2 percent. At the same time, the federal share of investment in the region’s infrastructure declined from 60 percent in the 1970s to 10 percent by 2014. SEMCOG estimates that southeastern Michigan alone would need to invest an additional $4 billion annually to bring its infrastructure to “good/fair” condition.

“We need to change the politics,” Thompson says. “We need to move away from a situation where austerity is the name of the game, and we do not tax business enough, we do not tax the rich enough, and we impose most of the taxes on the middle class and the lower class.”

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who represents the Grays and much of Detroit in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, says her phone blows up with every thunderclap above her district. “The anxiety that they feel every time they hear the thunder and they know it’s going to rain, it’s just a huge amount of fear and anxiety,” she told me. Tlaib is frustrated by the national approach to infrastructure—“It’s the same conversation from the 90s”—and that the significant flooding in her district gets attention only when it becomes a suburban problem. “It makes me so angry that my residents have been talking about this for so long, but it took certain communities outside of certain cities to all of a sudden say, ‘Oh maybe we do have to do something about it.’… When it comes to our air quality and rain and storms and climate crisis, there is no wall to segregate you away from that.” No walls, but there are plenty of streets like Tireman.

The great flood of June 26 began thousands of miles from Tireman Road. Following weeks of intense heat and drought across southeastern Michigan, tropical moisture from the Gulf of Mexico rode low-lying jet streams toward the Great Lakes before meeting a stationary front. With nowhere to go, the moisture filled the skies above Detroit. The hotter the air, the more moisture it holds. When it could hold no longer, torrential rains pummeled Detroit and the surrounding communities with unusual ferocity.

For over a decade, scientists have warned of increasingly intense rains and flooding in the Great Lakes region. The Second National Climate Assessment, issued in 2009, declared that “heavy downpours are now twice as frequent as they were a century ago” in the Midwest, and warned that with increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, Michigan’s temperate summers could be feel more like northern Texas’s by the end of the century.

The Great Lakes Integrated Science and Assessment (GLISA) team, a group of primarily Midwestern researchers supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was formed in 2010 with the mission of combining the expertise of social and physical scientists to study climate change in the Great Lakes region. The group estimates that between 1958 and 2016, the amount of precipitation falling in the heaviest 1 percent of Midwest storms increased by 42 percent. In other words, the worst rainfalls have gotten significantly worse. Buried beneath a jargon-filled summary of GLISA’s two main work phases on its website is a stunning revelation: “The Midwest is the US region with the largest expected damages to infrastructure due to climate change.” Detroit still has not released a strategy for climate resiliency or adaptation, although one is currently being developed.

Buried still beneath the deluge of alarming data is a question with urgent moral implications: Who will bear the brunt of further inaction?

Over the last five years especially, national onlookers conjured an archetype of the “left-behind” Midwesterner: the aggrieved small-town survivor, usually white and working class, seduced by nostalgia into the embrace of Trumpism. The reality is that no one was hit harder by the economic forces of the last 40 years than Detroiters. The climate crisis gives us yet another opportunity to create space in our national consciousness for people like the Grays, who will be asked yet again to carry the burden of society’s indifference.

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