How I survived the Detroit flood of 2014

How I survived the Detroit flood of 2014
Photo via Instagram user Nasim

I knew right around 2 p.m. that my basement was going to flood. Living in Hamtramck, you get used to it coming every August: A heavy rain that floods you out. If the downpour lasts just a half-hour, you’re OK, but if it persists for an hour, you’re going to get backflow in the basement. If it persists for two, three, four, five hours, you’re going to get it … bad.
The crazy thing is that I have a sewer shutoff valve, a big cast iron wheel that looks like it belongs on a submarine. If there were some way to call home and have somebody turn that big wheel on the basement floor, I might have avoided it, but on deadline day you simply can’t get away from Metro Times, so I found myself stewing over a situation I could have easily remedied.
Luckily, in Hamtown, you get used to these situations. It’s like our collective basements represent the city’s water catchment system, so you don’t put priceless antiques on the basement floor. I had pretty well flood-proofed mine, setting up a series of tables to keep my belongings on. Of course, the cleanup is still a p in the a.
By about 8:30 p.m., we had gotten the paper off to the printer and were free to leave the building. I drove my battered and rusty Volkswagen Golf around the lake that had formed in the middle of our Ferndale parking lot and tried heading down Drayton. Big mistake: The water was very high, and I was out of my league here. I simply have zero experience driving in high water in anything that isn’t a Humvee. As a result, I made all the wrong moves. I saw several cars in the middle of Hilton, stalled out, and I panicked. I tried powering across Hilton and threw up tremendous walls of water around me — and up in my engine, of course. I was lucky, though: I managed to get across Hilton and go through some more very high water before the engine conked out and I coasted to a stop on Drayton, just shy of Harris Street. I started the engine again and it ran. I watched some of the twentysomething residents of Harris Street pull out flotation devices to have a little fun in the water, despite somebody in the house warning that the water probably had fecal matter in it. They didn’t care. They splashed and played in the street like kids. I decided to wait for the waters to subside. I cut out the engine drifted off to sleep.
When I awoke, the water looked low enough to make another try. I turned the key, but the engine simply wouldn’t turn over. I called my friend Steve in Hamtramck and asked him to pick me up, and he said he was on his way. But when I walked over to Hilton and saw the snarl of traffic the flood had caused, I decided to start walking south. I called Steve and updated him, proceeding down toward Nine Mile Road.
At Nine Mile, I passed by the 7-Eleven, which was all parked up with people trying to start their cars. A woman in scrubs was talking to a group of people and saying, “Maybe we need something like this to make us talk to each other.” I don’t blame her for her opinion, but the laughter and smiling in the midst of this chaos stirred feelings of anger. I held my tongue.
I walked over to the BP station and found that they were also parked up, selling bottled of Ice Mountain water for a mere 39 cents, a little act of decency. I got some and kept on trudging.
Walking down toward Eight Mile Road, I was hailed by a Ferndale resident who chatted with me while we walked in the same direction. He’d been helping people push cars out of the road for an hour or so and was headed home. He warned me that Eight Mile Road was closed under the railroad viaduct, a valuable piece of information for me, since, as I now told him, my buddy was coming to pick me up and that I was going to walk halfway. He said, in a tone usually reserved for disbelief and shock, “From Detroit?” Not wanting to disturb the fellow, I said no. (Technically, my statement was true.)
I called Steve and told him I was heading down Woodward Avenue instead, and that he might try to pick me up at Woodward and Seven Mile Road. I began to pick my way along Woodward Avenue, by the old State Fairgrounds, and I’ll tell you something. I hear people complain about people in Detroit walking in the street. I’d like some of them to join me on some moonless night walking down Woodward. The streetlights are all out, and the sidewalk is fringed with plenty of foliage and undergrowth. Any light that falls from the sky is muted by the overhanging trees. “Hell, no,” I thought as I walked along the side of the road, at least illuminated by the glare of oncoming headlights.
Steve called. He said it was impossible for him to get to Seven and Woodward. I’d have to make it down State Fair if I wanted that ride. I trudged along State Fair by the old Theatre Bizarre, walking in the road when I could, in the sopping wet grass when I couldn’t, steering clear of the vacants along the south side of the street. As I got closer to John R, I realized I was heading for the barrier that Steve could not cross: the railroad viaduct.
There was a small group of people standing before it, pondering how to get across the floodwaters that had stranded several vehicles. Adding to their trepidation, a young woman sat stranded on the roof of a car down there. It looked to be about two or three feet deep in the middle, muddy and, frankly, not smelling very good at all.
I made my decision: I was getting home that night. I put everything in my bag and zipped it up tight. I held it up over my head and began walking into the water. Another guy began following, emboldened by my choice. The water was dark, and you couldn’t see the bottom. I told my companion to step high, as there were what felt like branches and other debris at the bottom that might trip you up. The water smelled dirty, and a little bit like gasoline. I felt the bottom with my feet, wondering if I was going to hit an obstruction, or step into an open manhole. But I made it across, and so did the other guy. Seeing us ford the water, the stranded lady got off her hood and joined us on the other side. It’s a good thing too: I don’t think any rescue-copters were en route to her.
And so I made it to Steve’s car, where he whisked me home. The damage wasn’t so bad. The water had gone down, and it seemed it got no higher than 2 feet. I believe I lost one box of priceless mementoes, which I can deal with. I got out of my wet clothes and put on some dry pajamas and flip-0flops and went to the local bar. Sometimes, you just need a drink, right? I think most of us did that night.

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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