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Severe Flooding Tests Detroit's Aging Infrastructure

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Before the month is up, the House is expected to vote on the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. It covers a lot of ground beyond just money to repair roads, ports and bridges. There's funding to improve the electrical grid, provide internet access for rural areas and much more. And the widespread need for these funds is already clear and present. Each day this week, we will hear from people and communities who are experiencing the frequent, if not daily, obstacles of failing infrastructure that this bill hopes to address. Our co-host Ari Shapiro starts our coverage in Detroit, Mich., where the city is confronting a challenge that will only get worse as the planet keeps heating up.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Around 2 a.m. on June 26, Palencia Mobley's phone pinged with a message from an old college friend who works at an auto plant in Detroit's Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood.

PALENCIA MOBLEY: A sorority sister of mine sends me a message on Instagram. She slides in my DM, and she says, hey, there's water coming up in the plant.

SHAPIRO: We are across the street from that plant on a hot, sunny day.

MOBLEY: And she sends me a video, and I'm like, wait, that's a lot of water coming up in the plant - like, the plant floor is starting to get submerged. Then, she sends me a video of the parking lot, where I can see the cars over there are submerged. So I'm like, oh.

SHAPIRO: Now, Palencia Mobley is more than just a sympathetic sorority sister. She is the deputy director and chief engineer of water and sewerage for the city of Detroit. Pretty soon, her phone was lighting up with text messages as people began to hear what Mobley calls the gurgle.

MOBLEY: There is a sound that you hear when the water starts pushing up through your drains, so...

SHAPIRO: And that water is, like, sewage water. That is...

MOBLEY: At this point...

SHAPIRO: ...Not water you want in your house.

MOBLEY: Yeah, at this point, it's combined, but it's...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MOBLEY: ...Primarily going to be a lot of sewage - right? - because it's whatever was in your line already.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

Hours before the sun was up, she knew that Saturday, June 26, would be a very long day. She tried to drive into work.

MOBLEY: And everywhere I go is blocked because there's enough surface flooding that the roads are not passable.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

MOBLEY: I'm like, oh, my God.

SHAPIRO: Are you a born and raised Detroiter?

MOBLEY: I am a born and raised Detroiter.

SHAPIRO: So is this a city that as you were growing up you thought of as, like, a place that has flooding problems?

MOBLEY: No. No. No. No.

SHAPIRO: But the climate is changing, and flooding problems are now very much a reality. This neighborhood, Jefferson Chalmers, is lined with canals. Even some locals say it feels more like Fort Lauderdale or New Orleans than Detroit. Working-class people in modest homes have boats in their backyards.

So the river's just right up here?

MOBLEY: Yep.

SHAPIRO: Mobley takes me to a park at the edge of the Detroit River. Monarch butterflies and bright-red cardinals flit by as old men fish for bass and sturgeon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS SQUAWKING)

SHAPIRO: So this river here is a higher level than the houses that are just on the other side of this berm.

MOBLEY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Well, that doesn't seem very conducive to flood prevention.

MOBLEY: No. No. But I didn't build it.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MOBLEY: Right? I didn't build it. Somebody thought it was smart a long time ago.

SHAPIRO: And it worked for most of the last century.

MOBLEY: It worked for most of the last century. It doesn't work now.

SHAPIRO: Part of what the infrastructure package aims to do is upgrade pipes, pumps and other systems that were built in the 20th century, so they'll work in the 21st. That's especially necessary as the Earth heats up, making extreme weather events more common and more intense.

THERESA BONHAM: My parents actually bought this house in '69.

SHAPIRO: Theresa Bonham's parents were among the first Black people to move into Jefferson Chalmers. Her mother died five years ago, and we're sitting on the front porch of the house that is part of Bonham's inheritance. She says flooding here isn't totally new. Her basement has had some water in the past. But what happened on June 26 was different.

BONHAM: 2016 - it may have been about two feet in the - of water at that time. It seemed like this was worse because I think I had at least five feet of water in the basement.

SHAPIRO: She filmed this video of the flood that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BONHAM: Oh, Jesus!.

SHAPIRO: It shows her wading through murky, brown water in rain boots as furniture and buckets float by.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BONHAM: Oh my, goodness gracious. OK.

SHAPIRO: I know this is a difficult question, but do you think this is going to be the last time?

BONHAM: I don't think it will be.

SHAPIRO: Theresa Bonham takes us down into her basement.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR UNLOCKING AND OPENING)

SHAPIRO: The flooring and the wall paneling are gone.

BONHAM: It maybe smells, too. I think I'm getting used to some of it.

SHAPIRO: She's thrown away the furniture and the bar that was down here. Some old family pictures were ruined in the water.

It's a beautiful photograph, even with the kind of smudging, I have to say.

BONHAM: Yeah. I'm going to keep it like this even with the smudging.

SHAPIRO: A shelf holds jars of produce that Bonham's mother canned near the end of her life.

BONHAM: I think this is, like tomato, peaches and pears.

SHAPIRO: And so is your plan to build back better? Or is your plan to leave this as a bare space that can flood without anything getting damaged?

BONHAM: No. It's to build back better.

SHAPIRO: You are ready to fight nature.

BONHAM: I don't know. I didn't think about it like that.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: The Hope Community Church up the road has already spent a lot of money trying to fight nature.

PAM PANGBORN: Hey. Nice to meet you.

SHAPIRO: Executive Pastor Pam Pangborn knew that the building had flooded before, so the church raised thousands of dollars for a new sump pump and valves. The congregation had been doing remote church services for more than a year due to the pandemic.

PANGBORN: This is our main area where...

SHAPIRO: They had started having in-person services again just one week before the latest flood.

PANGBORN: I need to make sure I have lights on through here.

SHAPIRO: Then came June 26, and the water overwhelmed all of the building's expensive new defenses.

PANGBORN: The force of the water was so huge that it just popped manhole covers off the street.

SHAPIRO: The church has now gutted the social hall, where they used to hold Sunday school.

PANGBORN: We're getting good at this.

(LAUGHTER)

PANGBORN: We know what to do to make sure...

SHAPIRO: Oh, that is so sad. I'm so sorry to hear that.

PANGBORN: It is, but we know exactly what to do to make sure that we get rid of the mold.

SHAPIRO: There's a piano in the middle of the room.

PANGBORN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Was it in three feet of water?

PANGBORN: At four different times.

SHAPIRO: Let's see how it sounds.

PANGBORN: Yeah (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

SHAPIRO: I can't imagine how you must have felt realizing what was happening.

PANGBORN: Discouraged, and at the same time, resolve - like, OK, what's next? What do we need to do here?

SHAPIRO: You've already invested so much money.

PANGBORN: Yes. Yes.

SHAPIRO: Is there more to spend?

PANGBORN: No. Oh, no.

SHAPIRO: And so what do you do with that?

PANGBORN: We have to raise the money.

SHAPIRO: I could imagine a person listening to this, saying a building that floods that many times should probably not be used in the way that it's being used. Probably what's happening there should happen someplace else. What would you say to that?

PANGBORN: I'd say, this is our home, and I don't know where we would go. No, we you roll up our sleeves and do the work and start again.

SHAPIRO: The building has been here for more than a century, and the congregation isn't about to walk away from it. People here in Jefferson Chalmers tell me they want to be Detroit strong. They want to bounce back, rebuild, prove that they can overcome any setback. But it gets harder with every flood. Some members of Pangborn's Congregation have replaced appliances three times in five years, and they tell her what a strain it's having on their lives.

PANGBORN: Weariness, frustration, grief at the loss of possessions and resignation, I think, that this just keeps happening.

SHAPIRO: The sentiment goes beyond just the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. Professor Carol Miller of Wayne State University in Detroit has been studying water infrastructure for decades, and she tells me people used to ask her about contaminants, whether the local fish they caught were safe to eat. But these days...

CAROL MILLER: The questions that are being asked at dinners and out with friends is a - questions relating to flooding - like, why is this happening? Why is it that disadvantaged people in the city have to go into their basements several times a year to pump out, or pail out, sewage that has gathered in the basement from a storm?

SHAPIRO: And when somebody at that dinner party says - so is this big infrastructure bill going to make a difference? - what do you tell them?

MILLER: I would tell them it should, that there's tons of money that look like it's going to be heading in that direction - so it should. I'd say it all depends on the people that are making those decisions.

SHAPIRO: The infrastructure package includes billions of dollars specifically to address flooding. There's $3.5 billion for FEMA's Flood Mitigation Assistance program over five years, another billion for a FEMA program called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, half a billion for flood mapping. The list goes on.

MOBLEY: It is better than what it was, but it's not enough.

SHAPIRO: Water engineer Palencia Mobley says, this is a good start, but she could use all of the flood money that this bill sets aside for the entire country just fixing Detroit's issues alone. As we take in the neighborhood in the midday heat, I ask her whether people around here associate these record storms with climate change.

MOBLEY: They made this summer - this summer might have made it happen. I think now people contextually understand, yes, something has happened. The hundred-year storm now kind of looks like the 10-year storm because the recurrence interval has changed.

SHAPIRO: She says she's trying to imagine infrastructure for a future that's uncertain.

MOBLEY: We don't even know what to design for now. This stuff is so far off the curve that you don't even know, like, what's the right level of service to try to provide?

SHAPIRO: You're saying if a hundred-year storm is now a 10-year storm, how bad is a hundred-year storm going to be in a decade...

MOBLEY: In a decade.

SHAPIRO: ...Or two or five? Yeah.

MOBLEY: Right. Your system is not designed to respond to something like that.

SHAPIRO: These days, when rain starts to fall, her friends texted each other, I'm praying for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: Our co-host, Ari Shapiro, reporting from Detroit. Tomorrow, our infrastructure series explores the struggle of one reservation in rural northern Nevada. They're trying to get connected to high-speed, reliable internet, a problem underscored for millions during this pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.