1st Friday Focus On The Environment: A Search For Solutions To Solve Michigan's Flooding Issues

Aug 6, 2021

Michigan 15th District State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud
Credit Michigan House Democrats / housedems.com

Excessive flooding across portions of southeast Michigan continues to create personal and financial hardship. The solutions aren't easy and are quite expensive. State representative Abdullah Hammoud of Dearborn represents the 15th District, which includes his hometown of Dearborn, an area devastated by flooding from the storms of late June. He joined WEMU's David Fair and Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak to discuss the complicated policy decisions needed to prevent such future occurances. 


Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak
Credit Michigan League of Conservation Voters / michiganlcv.org

Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a Bachelors Degree and two ensuing Masters Degrees in Social Work and Education.

Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU's '1st Friday Focus on the Environment.'

RESOURCES:

Michigan League of Conservation Voters

Rep. Abdullah Hammoud

FACT SHEET: The American Jobs Plan

American Rescue Plan

TRANSCRIPTION:

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and we're going to take some time today to talk flooding, flood relief, and infrastructure. I'm David Fair and welcome to WEMU's monthly feature, First Friday Focus on the Environment. Back on June 25th and 26th, some areas of our region saw more than six inches of rainfall. It overwhelmed stormwater and sewer systems, flooded basements and caused significant damage in the Ypsilanti area, Dearborn, and metro Detroit, among other places. Federal, state, and local states of emergencies were declared, and help is beginning to come to the affected. But it also speaks to some bigger issues. On the first Friday of each month, we get together with the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, Lisa Wozniak, and I together invite an expert guest to discuss important environmental topics. And welcome back for the August edition, Lisa.

Lisa Wozniak: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here, Dave. Our guest today represents his hometown of Dearborn in the state House of Representatives. Abdullah Hammoud is a Democrat representing the state's 15th District and will appear on the November ballot as one of two candidates for the mayor of Dearborn.

David Fair:Well, welcome to the show, Representative Hammoud.

Abdullah Hammoud: Thank you so much for having me.

Lisa Wozniak: Representative Hammoud, in the days and weeks following the storm, I know you spent time surveying the damage. It's one thing to talk about it in terms of policy and procedure, but to take it on a human level is entirely different. What have the people of your district experienced and, in turn, what have they been expressing to you?

Abdullah Hammoud: You know, in the midst of the rainfall, I'll never forget seeing the videos started surfacing and the cries that you can hear in the background, of water, you know, coming through the egress windows or the windows of people's basements and overpowering them to all capacities. You know, my aunt had seven and a half feet of sewage that blanketed her basement. And so, when we assemble a team, we went door to door to help residents to clear the furniture and the large debris to pump out the water and the sewage. Residents were just crying. They had lost their livelihood. You know, we weren't just taking furniture and debris to put on the curb for the garbage truck. We're putting people's livelihoods there. People who lost sentimental value--your wedding photos, your wedding albums, your children's photos, your wedding dress. All of this was destroyed. And people were asking one question: How could this happen again? This happened back in 2014. What has the city done in the last seven years to try to prevent this from happening again? How could this happen again? And that was the question that we heard time and time again. Should we rebuild or is it time to pick up and move on from the city?

David Fair: 12th District Congressional Representative Debbie Dingell says at least 40 percent of all homes in Dearborn suffered damage,--perhaps as many as 65 percent. Most are still living in the aftermath. Now, this week, the federal government announced 29 million dollars in relief money for the Detroit area that will help provide some grant money and low interest loans. But for the many who live paycheck to paycheck, another loan is another burden that may be too much to take on. What further response is going to be necessary?

Abdullah Hammoud: Very much that's necessary, because for most, even if they had sewage backup on their insurance policy, so much that we're still denied. For many who live in Dearborn, you're not afforded the opportunity to even have purchased flood insurance, because we're not going to the flood zone in the flood maps. For many, when they applied for FEMA, they were still denied for some strange reason. And so, for the average working family, they can't afford a 500 dollar unexpected bill. You're not talking about thousands in damages for us, for many families in the city of Dearborn. You know, for the working class families, the basement was actually a living space that wasn't just a storage space. And so, the cost of cleanup, the cost of repairing drywall out, to purchasing new two by four, and we know that all the prices have obviously inflated because of the COVID pandemic, assistance is very much needed. And I don't think, you know, the twenty nine million is sufficient. I don't think the insurance plans are sufficient. I think the only thing--the only prospective solution--that residents are really looking at is what do we do moving forward that gives them the confidence that if they are to rebuild their basement and their livelihoods again here in the city of Dearborn or in southeast Michigan, that this will not happen again. And we know that the solution is going to be very pricey. However, there are things that the local government can do that the county, the state, and the federal government all need to step up and do as well.

David Fair: This is Eighty-Nine one WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. I'm David Fair with Lisa Wozniak of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And we're talking with 15th District State Representative Abdullah Hammoud.

Lisa Wozniak: As you mentioned, Representative, there was major flooding in Dearborn back in 2014. And, as you also noted, it would appear that little has been done to further protect the community from such events. This year alone, there have been several less severe flooding events, in addition to the larger ones that we're talking about today that have wreaked havoc. With the climate crisis being very present and very well accounted for, more are very likely. So how crucial is the passage of what's being discussed in Washington right now, the federal infrastructure bill, to better address the issues right here in our state of Michigan?

Abdullah Hammoud: I mean, it's more than just crucial. I mean, this will determine the future for many families right here in southeast Michigan. The American Jobs Plan Act gives us the opportunity to make historic investments in infrastructure, because, to your point, we know that the climate crisis is real. And these, you know, quote unquote, once in 100 year storms are the new norm. They're going to happen more frequently and they're going to increase and their severity with time. And so, the American Jobs Plan Act is what we've been working on now and trying to pull together regional roundtables and the stakeholders from Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne and from the local municipalities, including our state government, and having the conversation that what is the solution? Let's lay out the solution now and identify the why and how this flooding happened. Let's identify what all the solutions are and what the clear pathway is in our infrastructure investments to ensure this never happens again. Because when the American Jobs Act passes, and I hope this is a when, we are going to have an opportunity to access historic levels of funding. But we need to know where to invest those funds. And so, that's what we're advocating for at this point in time. We're also advocating that we use the dollars that came down from the Rescue Plan Act that can be used for water and sewage infrastructure to make some investments at this point in time as well. So, we can use some funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and also prepare ourselves for some of the larger dollars that might come to the American Jobs Act.

David Fair: So, since the storms, you've had the opportunity to meet with members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among others. They've been on the ground in helping people with stations in Detroit, Dearborn, and at the Ypsilanti Township Civic Center. Beyond the immediate need, what are representatives of FEMA telling you about the rising costs of severe weather events and plans for funding to deal with them moving forward?

Abdullah Hammoud: You know, the reality is for the FEMA reps, you know, they have to follow the application and the processes that are in place, and some of them are inundated, and some of them are old. And so they may visit. You know, what we're doing is for folks that are denied by submitting their application online. For no reason, we don't know they're denied. The FEMA reps come out and see it for themselves. Some of them are able to then overturn that decision and then access some resources that are available. But I think even in conversations with FEMA reps, there's this understanding that this is going to happen time and time again. And the solution is not to just try to reimburse a portion of what families lost. That doesn't do any good for anyone. The solution has to be an investment in infrastructure. The solution has to be in tackling the pain of what's leading to the propelling of the climate crisis. That is where our focus must be. We have to be proactive. We have to ask ourselves what is it that we can do from shifting towards renewable energies, shifting how we operate as a society to ensure that we're not just furthering this crisis? And that seems to be where most of the conversations fall. It's a more difficult conversation, but it's the one that will produce the greatest outcomes for residents.

David Fair: And that brings up another issue that is at the heart of all this you mentioned, but doesn't get discussed nearly frequently enough. And that is the matter of insurance. Every time one of these events occurs, we found out most are underinsured and in large part because they're trying to keep premiums down that much of what we thought we would be covered for. We are not there's language in the contracts, including things like Act of God or distinguishing language like flooding versus seepage, things that can disqualify coverage. Insurance companies are often very helpful and help us manage through the most difficult of times. But their primary purpose is profit. As these events increase in frequency and severity, the risk assessment is going to rank higher, and that means higher insurance rates. Where, in your consideration of these issues, is insurance at the statewide level?

Abdullah Hammoud: Yes. At the state level, we're currently reviewing, you know, to your point earlier. About many households called, and, obviously, Dearborn has a very large Arab-American population and the areas that were decimated by the flooding happened to be the areas that were largely less affluent, more Arab-American where English as a second language. And when they call, they said, "Hey, we had flooding in our basement." --immediately denied because U.S. sewage back up and not flooding. And you said the wrong term over the phone. And so we're exploring what we can amend in law that you cannot be denied for simply saying the wrong word, that you can still prove and show that you have what you had sewage backup. Some insurance companies are denying because the city called it a flood and didn't put sewage backup on its letter that it put out to the public. And so, we also want to explore what options we have to hold these insurance companies accountable. The most important change, though, and I think it must happen at the federal level--and we know Congresswoman Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib are working on this--are updating the flood maps and the flood zones, so that residents in areas such as Dearborn, such as Detroit, and these various neighborhoods are able to purchase flood insurance. Now, having access to purchase it is just part of the battle, and obviously, the capability to afford flood insurance, which is going to be extremely expensive, is another portion of the battle as well.

David Fair: Thank you so much for the time today and sharing your perspective. We do appreciate it, Representative Hammoud.

Abdullah Hammoud: Thank you both so much.

David Fair: That is 15th District State Representative Abdullah Hammoud. He is a Democrat who is seeking to become mayor of his hometown of Dearborn in November. Lisa Wozniak is executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and serves as my co-host for WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. And I will look forward to our next conversation in September, Lisa.

Lisa Wozniak: Thank you, David. Thank you, Representative. Look forward to talking with you, David.

David Fair: I'm David Fair and this is Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD, one Ypsilanti.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu