In flooded Michigan neighborhoods, who should pay for the dikes?

This only adds to Myrtle Thompson Curtis’ concerns about the changing socio-economic and racial makeup of her neighborhood. Curtis runs Feedom-Freedom Growers, a neighborhood group that operates a community garden attached to Fox Creek.

Over the past few years, Jefferson Chalmers home prices have steadily increased northward. There’s a new craft cafe on Jefferson Avenue, a bra shop just down the street, and a $ 14 million project to redevelop a century-old ballroom with shops downstairs.

The trend is expected to continue as the city plans to contribute $ 130 million in economic development funds to Jefferson Chalmers and six other neighborhoods.

Curtis is happy to see new investments, but is concerned that longtime residents who endured the neighborhood’s leanest years may not be able to hold out long enough to reap the benefits of the city’s sustained economic recovery.

“There is a feeling that people could be kicked out, overpriced,” Curtis said. “It’s a little scary.”

A beggar-thy-neighbor approach to improving levees, she worries, will only accelerate this trend: people with money will strengthen their properties. People without money will not do it. As a result, they will be faced with higher flood insurance rates, city quotes and repeated flooding. Some will be forced to move and will be replaced by richer newcomers who can afford a dike.

“We need the city to pay attention to the owners who have come here, who have invested sweat, money and time to create something all these years,” she said.

Experts say Thompson Curtis’ concerns are valid. So-called “climate gentrification” has started to take shape in vulnerable areas of Miami and New Orleans, as worsening flood threats prompt richer people to migrate, displacing residents to low. returned.

But communities can avoid these trends if they start planning now for what they want their future to look like, said Maria Lemos, co-director of Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability and co- author of the Midwest Chapter of the National Climate Assessment.

“You can’t just react,” Lemos said. “You have to think ahead and try to find the best way to navigate these compromises. “

Who pays?

What is happening at Jefferson Chalmers is not an isolated problem.

Climate and planning experts say Great Lakes coastal communities should, where possible, retreat from shorelines and floodplains, in search of higher soil that is less prone to erosion. When this is not possible, communities should upgrade their infrastructure to cope with fluctuating water levels.

“If you have infrastructure near the lake, you should now think about the possibility that at some point that infrastructure is a risk,” said Richard Norton, professor of town and country planning at the UM. ‘s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

But such decisions involve a host of delicate moral, political and practical questions, including:

  • Should questions about removing or strengthening coastal land be decided differently in heavily populated residential areas than in sparse vacation communities?
  • Should decisions about who pays for dikes or other reinforcements be different in low-income neighborhoods than in prosperous ones?

“These are issues that we can’t tackle one neighborhood at a time, one city at a time,” said Beth Gibbons, executive director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals.

Michigan and the country need policies and programs to guide local decision-making, she said.

President Biden and Governor Gretchen Whitmer have both prioritized climate action, but comprehensive strategies – and the money to implement them – have yet to emerge. This leaves local communities to make policies themselves, at least for the time being.

At Jefferson Chalmers, Josh Elling is looking for a solution that combines the resources of local residents, municipal government and federal agencies.

Elling, CEO of Jefferson East, Inc., a nonprofit community development group representing five neighborhoods in eastern Detroit, sees constant flooding a displacement threat for low-income residents and a threat to the outlook long-term economic development of the neighborhood.

His group is working to certify dike contractors in a municipal program that offers interest-free home repair loans to low- and moderate-income homeowners. But, Elling admitted, some residents just can’t afford a dike, even with a loan.

“The hollow-tooth approach,” he said, in which city officials expect individual residents to tackle a neighborhood-wide problem that, in turn, is the product of global climate change, “will not work”.

There is no shortage of other ideas.

Some residents prefer to install gates at the mouth of Fox Creek and adjacent canals to cut the neighborhood’s connection to the Detroit River when water levels are high. The US Army Corps of Engineers suggested such a solution in 1976, but it never came to fruition. Krajniak, of Grosse Pointe Park, said staff in his town also recommended flood control valves.

Others are pushing the city to seek FEMA flood mitigation funds to build a uniform dike throughout the neighborhood. FEMA spokesperson Cassie Ringsdorf said those dollars are available as grants to local governments and FEMA typically covers 75 percent of the costs.

Still others want a special appraisal district, allowing neighborhood residents to share the expenses of a uniform dike and pay off debt over time.

“You can protect your most vulnerable population, create great new public amenities, and make us more resilient to the new normal of higher lake levels and increasing precipitation,” Elling said. “Now is the time for the city to put the big plans in place. “

Suburbs should benefit as well, he said: Less flooding would mean less water pouring into storm sewers, which increases treatment costs and puts stress on the Conner Creek wet weather treatment facility which serves customers throughout the region. A failure of the installation would propagate outward, causing wastewater to back up into residents’ basements.

But the city has no money to help, said Ray Solomon, general manager of the Detroit neighborhoods department, and “if you buy a house, the seawall is part of the purchase that is your responsibility.”

The city sought federal grants to help it, he said, but then the pandemic struck. Federal funding priorities have changed, Solomon said, and the hoped-for aid “just never materialized.”

For now, he said, the best option for residents is to band together with their neighbors and see if they can get a group rate from a dike contractor. The city, which has several lots in the neighborhood, is evaluating its possibilities of paying to raise its own dikes.

Pay for climate change

Experts say disputes over the cost of climate change preparedness will become increasingly common – especially in low-income communities – unless state and federal governments, businesses or philanthropists step in to help. .

Repeated flooding in the neighborhood underscores the state’s need to prepare now, said Rep. Joe Tate, who lives in Jefferson Chalmers, but “it’s just a red flag if we do something about this. topic”.

Biden presented a $ 2 trillion climate spending plan and pledged to spend 40% on investments benefiting underprivileged communities. And in January of this year, then-President Trump signed a bill sponsored by Senator Gary Peters, D-Michigan, to create a revolving loan program to help local governments fund mitigation projects. high water. At the state level, Governor Whitmer’s budget proposal includes $ 40 million in grants to help coastal communities deal with issues like high water levels.

But none of the above solutions have been funded yet, and residents of Jefferson Chalmers say they need a solution now, before water levels rise again.

For now, the tiger dams are. City officials said they plan to keep them in place for months to come and then reassess them based on water levels forecast for the summer.

About James Almanza

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