Two dams collapsed and thousands fled for their lives. These disasters pose a growing threat.

Erin Einhorn

SANFORD, Michigan — When the first dam collapsed, a massive surge of water roared so swiftly into Mike Gorthy’s lakefront home that he returned from securing his boats outside to discover water above the light switches on his first floor.

He hurried to cut the power, then went frantically searching for his wife, who had been downstairs.

“I was looking around in the water and felt under the water and I just couldn't find her,” said Gorthy, 75, who waded through the bitterly cold, neck-high flood, dodging a refrigerator and a freezer that were floating on their sides. “I thought maybe she got electrocuted and was under the water and if I found her, I’d try to revive her.”

When the water got too cold for him to bear, he retreated upstairs, despondent. “I thought I’d lost her,” he said.

In fact, Gorthy’s wife, Judy, 72, had safely escaped the house, which is built into a hill and has its front door on the second floor. Her husband soon found her on the dry front yard talking to a neighbor — perhaps the most joyous moment of his life, he said. But the lakefront dream home the Gorthys bought when they retired 20 years ago was ravaged.

By the end of the day, it wasn’t even on a lake.

Mike and Judy Gorthy sit in their backyard which reaches to the edge of the nearly empty Sanford Lake on June 2, 2020, in Sanford, Mich. (Elaine Cromie / for NBC News)

The urgent evacuation of 10,000 people from communities below two failing dams in central Michigan last month prevented the loss of life, but the collapsed dams expelled billions of gallons of water from two large lakes, sending them hurtling downstream in a powerful rush of destruction. Water ripped buildings off their foundations, smashed and twisted roads and bridges, damaged or destroyed an estimated 2,500 properties and triggered fears of contamination as it swept by a chemical plant and hazardous waste sites and submerged downtown Midland — a city of 40,000 people — under 9 feet of water.

The disaster on May 19 and 20 caused at least $175 million in damage, authorities say, and left behind two empty lake beds. The Gorthys and other homeowners who once watched water skiers zip by their doors now gaze out on a soggy moonscape of sand pocked with mangled docks, half-buried pontoon boats and clusters of tree stumps that somehow remained under the water for a century since dams built to generate hydroelectric power first flooded the forest to create the Sanford and Wixom lakes.

The Tittabawassee River has now returned to its natural size, gently flowing like a line drawn through the middle of the two giant bowls where the lakes used to be.

Image: The Tittabawassee River runs through a nearly empty Wixom Lake on June 2, 2020 in Beaverton, Mich. (Elaine Cromie / for NBC News)

Like the vast majority of the homes affected, the Gorthys’ was not in an area identified by the federal government as high risk for flooding, meaning they didn’t have flood insurance. (Fewer than 10 percent of the damaged properties did, county officials say.)

They had no idea their home or their lives were in danger. But dam experts say that not only were the events in Michigan not surprising, they’re also likely to play out again at dams all over the country in the coming years — in potentially more devastating ways.

Thousands of Americans live downstream from aging dams that have fallen into disrepair. Many of those dams are privately owned. Many no longer generate electricity. Many have not complied with laws requiring them to file emergency evacuation plans. Many are facing unprecedented weather conditions from climate change, with higher waters and heavier rains. And without a concerted — and fully funded — effort to repair or remove dams, experts warn that lives could be in danger.

“We need to be more proactive and not reactive,” said Tom Smith, the executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers. “Our infrastructure is critical to our quality of life and to life itself but we have failed to adequately invest in and maintain our infrastructure.”

The cost of repairing life-threatening dams across the country could top $20 billion, Smith said — roughly 2,000 times more than the federal government earmarked for that purpose in its most recent budget.

It’s expensive, but the cost of skipping repairs could be much higher, Smith said. “There is a terrible cost to failing to invest.”

‘There's a big gap’

As the people of Midland and its surrounding areas clean up the damage, they’re facing difficult questions that could presage similar discussions experts say need to take place around the country.

Among them: Who should own dams? Who should pay for their repairs? And, in many places: Should they exist at all?

Image: Two Dams Burst Flooding Town Of Midland, Michigan (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

There are more than 90,000 dams in the United States, according to a federal inventory. Among them, more than 15,000 are considered high-hazard dams, meaning they’re close enough to populated areas that life or property could be threatened if they fail.

Of those high-hazard dams, more than 2,300 have been so poorly maintained they’re in unsatisfactory condition, said Mark Ogden, project manager at the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

And many dam owners — 64 percent of whom are private entities — don’t have the money to make repairs, he said. “There’s a big gap between what’s needed and the actual resources.”

The dam safety organization has documented 250 dam failures since 2010, plus more than 500 other incidents that were caught and fixed just ahead of a failure. Most were small and had limited impact, but some were catastrophic, including a dam break in Nebraska last year that killed a man when it washed away his house.

Alarmingly, roughly 1 in 5 high-hazard dams don’t have emergency plans on file with local officials, making a safe evacuation difficult, Ogden said.

Related: Rapidly rising water overwhelmed the Edenville and Sanford dams, forcing 11,000 people in central Michigan to evacuate their homes as the structures failed Tuesday night.

And homeowners often have no inkling of the threat. Dam owners in most states are not required to notify people if they’re in a zone that could get flooded. Mortgage lenders, who typically require homeowners to get a flood certification to determine if a property is in a flood plain, don’t have similar requirements for houses near dams.

But people who live near dams need to start paying attention, especially as they’re battered with extreme weather that the designers of the dams in the 20th century never expected, said Brian Graber, the senior director of river restoration for American Rivers, a nonprofit.

What happened in Midland “is not close to being an isolated incident,” he said.

‘A gifted life for a poor boy’

Wixom and Sanford lakes, which were created by the Edenville and Sanford dams in the 1920s, have existed as long as anyone in the Midland area can remember.

Daniel Lackey, 70, was just 5 when his father scraped together savings from his job at a General Motors plant in Flint to buy a small cottage with cement floors on Wixom Lake — a basic retreat that lacked indoor plumbing for years.

He spent his childhood summers fishing, playing badminton and jumping from the diving board that he and his brothers crafted at the end of their dock.

“It was a gifted life for a poor boy,” Lackey said, recalling the summer he skipped driver’s ed to build a hydroplane with his brother from plans the two found in a magazine.

He brought his wife, Kayann, there for the first time when she was 17 and he was home on leave from the U.S. Air Force. Their children and nieces and nephews grew up there, and now bring their own children and grandchildren — the cottage’s fourth and fifth generations.

Lackey and wife moved to the lake full time after he retired from General Motors and Kayann, now 67, retired from her work as a Montessori preschool director.

Their daughter, Sarah Schulz, built a cottage next door to her parents with her husband a few years ago. The whole clan, including Schulz’s two children, were at the lake last month when the local fire department came down their street, urging them to get to higher ground.

Image: (Elaine Cromie / for NBC News)

They decided to stay because they thought their cottages were high up enough to be safe. “We’ve been here since 1960 and the water just was always where it should be,” Lackey said.

As the water rose, the family gathered kayaks just in case. But Kayann, who was forced into the second floor of her cottage as the first floor filled with water, is disabled and couldn’t get into a kayak.

Eventually, “it got to be terrifying,” said Schulz, who is running as a Democrat to represent the area in the state Legislature. She posted an SOS on Facebook that helped the family get rescued by a man in a pontoon.

A man in a pontoon boat rescues the Lackey and Schulz families from their lakefront homes. (Courtesy of Sarah Schulz)

The family is grateful that no one was hurt, but a lifetime of prized belongings washed away, including the American flag that Lackey’s nephew brought home from the Air Force. The Lackeys helped raise their niece and nephew after Lackey’s brother was killed in a convenience store robbery in Flint in 1993.

The young man joined the Air Force to follow in his uncle’s footsteps. The flag he brought home was so treasured, Lackey said, his voice cracking with grief, he only flew it on the Fourth of July.

Now, like most of the Lackeys’ cottage, it’s gone. As they try to rebuild, the couple is living on the second floor despite Kayann’s difficulty with stairs. They have no kitchen, no shower and no electricity.

They spent most of their savings renovating a house that is now in tatters. They had no flood insurance and, while they hope they’ll qualify for federal emergency funds, they’re not sure where they’ll get the money to rebuild.

The only thing Lackey knows for sure, he said, is that he isn’t going anywhere.

“I still plan to live here until I die,” he said. “This is where my father died and hopefully this is where I’ll die.”

‘Enforcement is the issue’

Most American dams were built in the 20th century to serve mills or factories that are long gone, Graber of American Rivers said.

In most of the country, it’s difficult to make money generating hydroelectricity since turning a profit typically requires the force of a large river as it makes a steep drop. Small dams in flat states like Michigan have thin margins at best, Graber said.

“Many, perhaps most, of the dams in the United States are no longer serving the purpose they were built to provide,” he said. “A very high percentage should be removed for health and safety reasons, as well as environmental benefits.”

Graber, whose organization works to remove dams, said restoring a river to its natural state can improve public safety and water quality, allowing fish to migrate freely. He says homeowners like the Lackeys and the Gorthys will soon see grass growing on their lake bed and might come to enjoy living beside a verdant meadow with a river running through it.

Image: (Elaine Cromie / for NBC News)

The river in its natural state would also be less likely to flood downstream in Midland, he said.

But Sanford and Wixom lakes are deeply intertwined with the economy of the region. Lakefront property owners pay high taxes that the region depends on, and local businesses have long catered to boaters.

People on the lakes are adamant that their waterfront be restored. But, in the aftermath of the flood, as residents, state officials and the dams’ owner, Boyce Hydro, LLC, all blame one another for the disaster, it’s not clear what will happen next — or who will make those decisions.

Many of the homeowners blame Lee Mueller, the man who bought Boyce Hydro as a tax shelter in 2006, according to court records reviewed by Bridge Magazine. Since then, the company, which operates four dams including the two that failed, has been cited for a host of safety violations that warned the Edenville dam couldn’t withstand heavy rains.

Mueller blames state and federal agencies, who he says imposed so many regulations — and made rules barring private dam owners like him from receiving federal financial support — that he didn’t have the money to make needed repairs.

“Unfortunately, environmental protection took precedence over public safety,” said Lawrence Kogan, an attorney for Mueller.

Mueller has also blamed the homeowners who he says have pressured him for years to keep water levels high so they could go boating, when he wanted them lower for safety reasons. The state compounded that pressure by raising concerns over lower water levels hurting freshwater mussels in the lake — an issue that triggered a state lawsuit against Boyce this year, just weeks before the flood.

In 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees hydroelectric dams, was so alarmed by safety concerns at the Edenville dam that it yanked Boyce’s license to produce power there. That meant the company had even less money to make repairs.

The dam then fell under the oversight of the state, which regulates dams that don’t produce electricity. The state, which has just two inspectors and a supervisor to keep tabs on about 1,000 dams, also warned that repairs were needed, but neither agency found a way to compel Mueller to make the repairs.

“Enforcement is the issue. That's where this fell apart,” said Jim Hegarty, the past president of the Michigan section of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the co-author of two reports on the state of Michigan’s dams.

States need tools, such as the ability to make dam owners post bonds that could pay for needed repairs, he said. States also could help pay for those repairs, he added, but Michigan is among states that have no dedicated funding for that purpose.

Boyce had been trying to sell the dams to a consortium of homeowners on the lakes, who had planned to raise money through a property tax assessment to make repairs. Late last year, the Four Lakes Task Force estimated the four Boyce dams needed $20 million in repairs. But the dams failed before that sale could go through.

The disaster has prompted a slew of lawsuits, with some homeowners suing Boyce and others also suing the state for poor oversight. On Tuesday, the state, which is conducting an investigation, filed suit against Boyce. The company responded the next day, putting the blame back on the state and asking to move the suits to federal court.

What’s next

No one knows how much it will cost to rebuild the dams, but it’s definitely going to be expensive — and it’s not clear who would cover the cost.

Many homeowners on the lake say they want to get the dams out of Mueller’s hands.

“When you have a private person owning something like a dam and trying to own it for the sake of his own profits, then you end up with bad decisions,” Schulz, Lackey’s daughter, said. “This was not a natural disaster. This was a dam that was neglected and it failed. This was a man-made disaster.”

The Schulz and Lackey cottages during the flooding. (Courtesy of Sarah Schulz)

If homeowners want the dams out of Mueller’s hands, however, they’ll have to buy them, Kogan said. His client has no intention of just giving them away and losing his investment.

U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Mich., who represents the area, said the two lakes “are a tremendous resource for the region” and need to be restored, whether that means raising money from private corporations or from a public-private partnership.

"We’re going to have an all-hands-on-deck approach to look at a variety of options and work together to solve this,” he said.

Some locals are hoping the state and federal governments will help buy and repair the dams, but that might not go over well with people who don’t live on the lakes.

Peter Sinclair, a videographer from Midland who has traveled the world documenting the effects of climate change, was surprised last month when he found his own city underwater. Midland, he said, has experienced some flooding but had always been safe from major climate disasters such as hurricanes and forest fires.

He doesn’t think it makes sense for taxpayers to spend money on dams that could fail again in the future — particularly when both state and local agencies are already facing a severe economic crisis from the coronavirus.

As he watches his city try to recover from the dam collapse, he hopes this disaster in Michigan will be a wake-up call for people around the country.

“What happened here is not isolated,” he said. “This potential situation exists in thousands of places across the Midwest where people have not felt threatened by climate change but global change is combining with decaying infrastructure to accelerate the time when many communities are going to be faced with the same issues.”

CORRECTION (June 14, 2020, 10:12 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the number of dams regulated by the Michigan government. It is about 1,000, not 2,500.