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Floodwaters Force Thousands Of People To Evacuate In Michigan


In central Michigan, catastrophic flooding is forcing thousands of people from their homes in an area that is one of the hardest-hit by the coronavirus. The timing is terrible. Social distancing is key to preventing a further outbreak, so checking into shelters or bunking with family and friends is even more fraught than usual. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has issued a state of emergency.


GRETCHEN WHITMER: What I can tell you is what you already know - you've seen from the pictures. It's devastating.


Meanwhile, the country reached a landmark today. All 50 states have now at least partially reopened their economies after weeks of being shut down due to the virus. The CDC has released expanded guidelines to help states reopen safely, but there is disagreement about how quickly that should happen.

SHAPIRO: In a moment, we'll hear more about those CDC guidelines. But first, Michigan Radio reporter Tracy Samilton is here.

Tracy, I know your line is not 100% reliable, so hopefully we can make out everything you say. But if not, I might repeat some phrases. Good to have you with us. So I know you're in Midland, Mich. We speak with the mayor in another part of the program. How are things looking there right now?

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Well, you know, it's hard to believe that just a couple days ago, we had up to 8 inches of rain in 48 hours. It's a beautiful day today. But the water in the Tittabawassee River here in Midland is going to continue to crest. It could be - parts of downtown Midland be under water of 9 feet by 9 o'clock tonight.

The problem - the big problem was not just the rain but the fact that a dam failed. And then once it failed, a second dam was breached. And this is the hometown of Dow Chemical. The floodwaters have actually started to commingle with some chemical retention ponds they have there. We don't know what's going on with that situation right now, but it's a concern. There's a lot of legacy pollution here, and it's just being swept into the water.

And Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has taken an aerial survey of the area, says it's just devastating what she's seeing. This is basically, she says, a 500-year flood, and it's happening right during a coronavirus epidemic.


WHITMER: This is going to be hard, but we are anticipating several feet of water across this area. And so while we're in the midst of a global pandemic, it's really important that, to the best of our ability, we observe the best practices to keep ourselves and our families safe.

SHAPIRO: Of course, this order to evacuate comes after people had been ordered to shelter in place. So what are the challenges of an evacuation of this scale in the middle of a pandemic? Is it even possible to keep up social distancing?

SAMILTON: Well, I - the - I went to Midland High School, which is where - one of the centers where they have people who've been evacuated. I was actually pretty impressed with how they're doing with social distancing and with masks. Just about everybody had a mask on. Now, granted, some of the folks who were in a residential senior citizens center are there. So it's really, really important - I think people understood that it's really important to try to keep folks safe. So under the circumstances, they are doing the best that they can.

I spoke to one of these gals, Pat Wood. And she slept at the high school last night. She said she was pretty uncomfortable sleeping on a cot, but she says the community support, the volunteers have just been reaching out and have been incredible in how they've helped her.

PAT WOOD: They sent buses, and they brought us over here. But we've had really good service - said, in fact, we'd like to stay (laughter). And if we become homeless, this wouldn't be too bad.

SHAPIRO: So, Tracy, how long are people there expecting to be away from their homes?

SAMILTON: You know, officials are being extremely cautious about this. They're not saying, oh, we think it'll be three days. Oh, we think it'll be two or five. There's just such a huge amount of water here, and we don't know how long it's going to take to recede, so, really, it's anybody's guess.

SHAPIRO: Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton, thank you.

SAMILTON: Happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tracy Samilton covers the auto beat for Michigan Radio. She has worked for the station for 12 years, and started out as an intern before becoming a part-time and, later, a full-time reporter. Tracy's reports on the auto industry can frequently be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on Michigan Radio. She considers her coverage of the landmark lawsuit against the University of Michigan for its use of affirmative action a highlight of her reporting career.