URC Roundtable Tour: Detroit

Flooding & Failing Infrastructure

Researchers from the University Research Corridor – Michigan State University, University of Michigan, and Wayne State University – held a roundtable discussion on Monday, April 18, 2022, at Wayne State University with community leaders and state and local lawmakers to discuss ways to deal with the frequent flooding being experienced in Detroit and other Southeast Michigan cities after storms. 

This is part of a three-stop roundtable tour focusing on ways URC institutions work to understand and mitigate environmental impacts on human health. The tour aligns with the URC's new issue brief, Tackling Environmental Health Threats 

detroit roundtable on flooding Below, find a list of event documents, a recap and further resources.  

"“Flooding has been a serious concern for residents in my district, throughout Southeast Michigan and across our state. Sharing information among experts from our research universities, communities and the private sector enables us to rebuild our infrastructure and reduce our risks from flooding in smarter, more efficient and effective ways.” "

-Michigan State Representative Joe Tate

Event ReCAP

detroit roundtable on flooding Heavy rainfall in Detroit last June left thousands without power while flooding freeways and basements. It was the second 500-year storm to occur in seven years, and the cost from the damage was significant. As this type of severe weather becomes more common, researchers and industry experts are seeking out ways to better prepare our communities to deal with this growing environmental threat.

Michigan State Representative Joe Tate kicked off the meeting by sharing a photo of a manhole cover from a street in his district, engraved with the words “Village of Fairview” — indicating it was made in the early 1900s, and still in use as part of the system below. 

He then turned things over to three experts to share a summary of their work:

  • Wayne State University Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Chair William Shuster, spoke about how he and his Wayne State colleagues are engaged with community and utility company partners to develop solutions that will tap local knowledge to create a more robust, responsive infrastructure in the face of increasingly severe storms. “We know that water always wins, as it has the time and energy to find the paths of least resistance, which are often our basements or other infrastructure,” he said. “We need to respond to the way that water plays this game and give it other options. This means retrofitting residential and regional infrastructures, communicating clearly and acting on the prospects for lowering risk through emergency preparedness and response and consistent, comprehensive redress of infrastructure problems.”
  • University of Michigan environmental epidemiologist Carina Gronlund shared her work on how factors involving social, economic, health and the built environment affect communities’ vulnerability to extreme heat and precipitation, which can help cities adapt to heat waves and heavy rainfall in a changing climate. “Severe weather events will continue and intensify, creating more events of flooding and other serious environmental hazards,” Gronlund said. “Developing greater resiliency in infrastructure and response systems is important in helping cities and communities adapt to climate change.”
  • Bethany J. Howard, Climate Equity Coordinator with Eastside Community Network in Detroit noted that the Eastside Community Network is focused on advocating for new policies, infrastructure development and community education that prepare for a changing climate. Flooded out residents are members of vulnerable communities with the fewest resources to recover from the damage, especially given the low levels of payments insurance companies have made.

During the roundtable, participants discussed ways to better handle storm water, improve pumping stations and other drainage infrastructure, as well as the need to address health effects of flooding and help disaster recovery in historically marginalized and low-income communities. The collaboration between local communities and the three URC universities shows how research being conducted on campus has real-life applications in our communities, helping solve new challenges as they arise.

The need to work collaboratively to maximize funds and invest in infrastructure was clear. “There’s this notion across the country that under-investment saves money, said Jim Nash, Oakland County Water Resource Commissioner. “Keeping costs down doesn’t save money, because the cost of fixes goes up when we don’t invest early.”      

 “We have a huge education gap about what systemically happens with failing infrastructure,” shared Jay Juergensen with Juergensen + Associates. “This is all underground and nobody sees it. And support [for those repairs] needs to be grant money, so that neighborhoods don’t pass costs on to rate payers.”  

 The need for equitable access to flooding support and infrastructure investment was anchored by Michigan State Representative Tyrone Carter. “Water affects everybody, but there are certain communities that do not get funding ­— ever. Too many are turned down for FIMA help,” Rep. Carter said. “It’s cheaper to be proactive than reactive, and we have more infrastructure money now than we’ve ever had. The costs cannot keep falling to the people here who can least afford it.” 

Sprawl and disjointed planning are known reasons for urban flooding issues, and the communities creating the problem are not often the ones who suffer the most damage. 

“Communities like Jefferson Chalmers are bearing the brunt of downfield flow from unmitigated sprawl,” shared Joshua Elling, CEO of Jefferson East, Inc.  

Attendees agreed that aligning actions to protect public safety was fundamental, and comprehensive collaboration to develop a statement of work to manage large scale projects and processes would be useful. Utilities can’t solve this problem on their own, and teamwork is key. 

“We’re paving our way into unmitigated sprawl. Instead, we need a comprehensive approach,” shared Chip Amoe, Director of Sustainability with Henry Ford Health. “That means alignment in water and building codes, stormwater runoff, roads and other parts of the built environment, from green roofs to slow water to natural areas to reduce urban heat. It’s got to include everyone.” 

The roundtable discussion was the first of three engagement events that follow the release of a new URC report, Tackling Environmental Health Threats, which examines the impact of a variety of risks to the health and vitality of Michigan communities posed by neglecting environmental threats. Each discussion in the URC’s Health Threats Tour is intended to help bridge the gap between research and practice and provide an opportunity for new connections to be made between community and university experts and leaders. 


WSU Report (June 2021): Household Flooding in Detroit: A Snapshot of Citywide Experiences, Implications for Public Health, and Potential Solutions

MSU Extension Severe Weather & Flooding Experts: Contact Guide

U-M Urban Flooding Experts: Contact Guide 

White Paper: Towards Better Water Resource Management in the Jefferson-Chalmers Community  (PDF, June 2021, Juergensen)


Via the Detroit News (4/18): Panel: With infrastructure funding available, communities need to 'use it smartly'

Via WXYZ Detroit (4/18): Examining efforts to prevent flooding across metro Detroit

Via WMYD TV20 Detroit (4/18)Examining efforts to prevent flooding across metro Detroit

Via The Paul W Smith Show (4/19): Britany Affolter-Caine ~ The Paul W. Smith Show 

Via WILS (4/19): Britany Affolter Caine on The Dave Ackerly Show 

Via LegalNews.com (Oakland)(4/21): URC experts meet with local officials to discuss ways to ease flooding during storms