In late June, the city of Detroit, Michigan experienced record rainfall that resulted in devastating floods. The unprecedented rainfall, which caused damage to thousands of homes and businesses, was the second time a supposedly 500-year rain event occurred in the past seven years. And while the rains and the floods represent the increasing threat of human-caused climate change, the damage done was also because of Detroit’s aging infrastructure, mismanagement at the hands of authority and other issues tied to climate resiliency, Donna Givens Davidson, the President and CEO of Eastside Community Network (ECN) would explain.
The biggest issue earlier this year was electrical problems that interrupted the power supply at two pumping stations that housed pumps used to get water out of and away from areas in Detroit that are prone to flooding. But this is not the first time that the pumps have failed for one reason or another, dating back to issues that came to light when Detroit flooded in 2016.
“Operating those pumps is super important. Updating them is super important. We have not put enough money into that,” Givens Davidson said. “One of the challenges that I’ve been thinking about is that very few people understand the actual infrastructure of our water sewer system – where are the pumping stations, where are the transfer stations – there’s all of this stuff that we don’t understand. So what we tend to get from public officials is ‘everything’s old, we can’t fix this, it’s not our fault, there’s climate change.’ They say we put $30 million in, but they don’t tell you where they put it, and there’s no public disclosure of how it’s being spent…They’ve said, ‘we need more green infrastructure, but then their policies don’t reflect that.’”
And while no movement seems to be made at these glaring issues, the people of Detroit continue to face increasingly regular flooding that causes thousands of dollars in damages to homes, the loss of family heirlooms, and displacement. ECN, which has always worked to provide support services for the people in their community, has been trying to fill in the gaps, shifting toward flood relief efforts and serving as a liaison between Detroit residents and city, state, and federal bureaucracy.
“ECN is a resident-driven organization and our work is based on what the community needs,” Savana Brewer, the Director of Community Organizing & Planning said. “The flood assistance that we’ve been doing nonstop since July 1st is in partnership with our Community Organizing & Planning Department as well as the Climate Equity Department and is serviced within the Stoudamire Wellness Hub.”
The team has registered 213 residents to date with completing a Flood Intake Assessment and has also been assisting residents with completing damage claim forms for the Detroit Water Sewage Department, as well as the Great Lakes Water Authority. Since the flooding was declared a federal disaster, they’ve also assisted with FEMA applications, FEMA appeals, and State Emergency Relief (SER) applications.
ECN has also assisted with more direct and immediate needs, contributing financially to residents who may need support with purchasing cleaning supplies, handing out “Flood Kits” that include items like a mop, pail, hand sanitizer, N95 masks, plastic gloves, germicidal bleach, and community resource flyers. Amidst it all, they are also working to ensure residents know the risks of standing water in the home by providing Flooding & Air Quality in Your Home educational booklets and other important information.
For residents who may not be able to properly clean up their flooded homes whether due to age or health conditions, ECN partnered with two community organizations to serve as cleaning teams to help remove debris and properly sanitize.
“We are really doing wraparound services…because as residents come in for flood assistance, we also ask them if they need assistance with property taxes, whether it’s the current year or past year as well as assistance with food, water, and clothes,” Brewer said. “We also have been just really listening to residents. We’ve seen many tears. We have had to give some socially distanced hugs, or even just a pat on the shoulder, just to comfort residents.”
ECN is working to build its capacity through its work with ISC’s Partnership for Resilient Communities in order to continue to serve and support its community not only through crisis but the everyday necessities of life. Currently, the organization is working on building a wellness hub with resiliency features in order to provide a way to keep the community connected. The June 25 flood, accelerated the opening of the wellness hub to become a resource and place for residents to go to for support. The organization also recently purchased a van in order to transport residents in need, and even materials and resources to places where they are needed.
“PRC took us from an organization that was focused very narrowly on green infrastructure to an organization that more broadly embraced the issue of climate and climate equity,” Givens Davidson noted.
Since working with PRC, ECN has been able to work with several organizations and groups including the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, and the Michigan Public Health Initiative to collaborate on work centered on equity, climate resilience, and environmental justice.
“PRC gave us credibility, access, voice, and connections to other people,” Givens Davidson added. “In 2014, nobody came to ECN and said, ‘what are you going to do about the flood? What do you think about the flooding?’ In 2016, we were on our way there. But in 2021, when people talk about flooding, they look to our organization as a resource. And the ability to be a resource…just to be able to embrace the community and say, ‘come here and we will help you…,’ is a big part of the picture.”
Even as ECN holds its community fiercely, it also looks towards public officials, hoping to inspire and support legislation pushing climate justice and sustainability in order to change Detroit’s future.
“There’s nobody on the eastside of Detroit who is not worried about water right now. Every single time it rains, people are afraid,” Givens Davidson said. “So what I’m hoping is that we incorporate [climate justice and equity] into public policy, into our selection of elected officials, and into all of the planning that is done. ECN can play a role in sounding the alarm and making sure we keep that front and center and creating movement from residents in our community to join us in that fight.”