GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It was 13 days in April of 2013 that many will never forget. It took just a few days of heavy rain to raise the Grand River to historic heights; The devastation carried on for over a week.
The skies opened up on April 8. Some 4.5 inches of rain fell between April 8 and April 15 in Grand Rapids. Upstream, in Comstock Park, just over 5 inches fell in that same period.
The combined flow sent the Grand River over its banks. Its biggest target was the city of Grand Rapids.
“This was a test of our community. A test of our city organization and our emergency preparedness,” Grand Rapids Public Services Director James Hurt said.
Public Works and other city agencies that fall under Hurt’s control played a major role in dealing with the flooding.
“We were getting projections that the river was going to crest at 23.3 feet. That’s the highest we’ve ever seen. The highest level before that was in 1985, which was about 19.6. And we were concerned,” Hurt said. “We knew as leaders of this community, we had to perform. And we had to ensure we were providing safety to our community.“
STATE OF EMERGENCY DECLARED
While families living along the river in Comstock Park and other locations north of downtown moved to higher round, Grand Rapids officials nervously watched the rising waters funnel through the flood-control walls near downtown.
Large pumps had to be brought in to remove water from the Amway Grand, the JW Marriott and other building along the river.
Plaza Towers at the corner of Fulton Street and Monroe Avenue was especially hard hit.
Years before, the city had cut a hole in the floodwall near Plaza Towers to allow for the continuation of a Riverwalk. But that hole was blamed for filling the basement parking and utility area of Plaza Towners with floodwaters, so much so that on Saturday, April 20, smoke poured from the basement of Plaza Towers due to overworked water pumps.
Over 1,000 residents and guests of the building’s hotel had to be evacuated after electricity was lost and vital mechanicals were waterlogged.
It took months for the building to reopen.
On April 13, 2013, an announcement from then-Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell brought the seriousness of the situation to a new level.
“I hereby declare a state of emergency for the city of Grand Rapids,” Heartwell said at the time.
People and buildings along the river were a concern.
But the entire city and many dry lands, surrounding communities were in jeopardy in another way when floodwater crept towards the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
“At a projection of 23.3 feet, we were concerned we would have an infiltration into our plant, and cause major catastrophe on our plant,” Hurt said. “The wastewater treatment plant services 300,000 residents. And if it was flooded, we would have a significant, critical problem on our hands.”
The call went out to the community to help fill sandbags. The community answered that call, filling 75,000 to 80,000 in just days.
“They came out in big numbers. We had folds coming from all around — not only Grand Rapids but as far as Traverse City — wanting to come and help us fill sandbags,” Hurt said.
As those volunteers worked filling sandbags, Heartwell once again took to the podium at city hall, when he was asked about ways residents could take some of the pressure off the plant by conserving water.
“Shower with a buddy,” was the mayor’s answer, providing a little comic relief in what had been a difficult week.
‘IT WAS PRETTY EERIE’
Anecdotes and photos from the people who lived it help tell the story of the history-making flood of 2013.
One of the most memorable came from the camera phone of optometrist Gary Anderson. His Riverfront Square office is located on the first floor, facing the Grand River.
As the river began to rise that second week in April of 2013, Anderson watched closely.
“We had ice. Actually, it was covered with ice. And then we had rain on top of it, and then it all started to melt. … It just came up fast.” Anderson said, standing next to the same window where he watched the river rise in 2013. “The flood forecast was going to be at (22.5 feet), which it did get to.”
A moment of brevity broke the tension: Peter Pike.
“It was pretty eerie looking at the water, the muddy water with everything floating by. That’s when the fish came by. It was a Pike, just like that. A 22-inch pike that came by. And I took a picture with my cell phone,” Anderson said. “Actually put it on Facebook. It had 238,000 shares on Facebook.”
Fortunately for Anderson, the aquarium-grade windows in his office would hold back the river.
Within days, they were back in business.
Others were not as fortunate.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT TIME?
For days, large volume pumps continued the effort to remove flood waters from the basements of several downtown buildings. City crew went along flood control walls, foot by foot, checking for breaches and weak spots.
“2013 was certainly the biggest test of our infrastructure as far as the river protection system is concerned,” Grand Rapids City Engineer Tim Burkman said.
The test lead to upgrades. Burkman said some $8 million has been invested in improving the city’s flood protection system since the flood of 2013.
Some of the improvement you can’t see, like the flap gates installed to the portion of the city’ s storm water sewer system that dump into the river, preventing backflow during high river levels into neighborhoods and reducing stormwater from being dumped into the river.
More visible improvements include adding up to 3 feet to a portion of the city’s floodwall network.
The work helped Grand Rapids obtain a jumble of bureaucratic words know as a Freeboard Deficient Certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We worked very hard and diligently with FEMA to obtain that. And you’ll see that reflected in the new flood insurance rate maps that were recently adopted and put out that shows areas in the city that would have otherwise been in the 100-year floodplain, are now protected by the levy system that’s now in place,” Burkman said.
In the decade since the great flood of 2013, there’s also been a renewed interest is making the Grand River part of the main draw to downtown.
The river plays a major role in GR Forward, the large-scale redesign of downtown. The idea is to make the river a focal point for recreation and relaxation.
One approach is to redesign flood control barriers in sections along the river for a dual purpose. It’s essentially a softer approach to flood control that opens public spaces along the river that can also contain flood waters.
“Allowing there to be berms that are accessible at places like 6th Street Park, Canal Park, the 201 Market project. We’re looking along those edges as those sites redevelop or park projects happen,” Burkman said.
It didn’t take GR Forward to convince Anderson that the Grand River is one of downtown’s greatest assets: He’s known that all along.
Anderson thinks creating more public space while at the same time helping control future flooding is a good plan.
“People love the river,” Anderson. “There’s not many cities (where) you can be that close to the river.”