Michigan Water Science Center
Table of Contents
Documentation of major floods in Michigan before 1904 is limited. Earlier floods that have been referenced include 1843, 1852, 1861, and 1875 in the Grand River basin; 1873 and 1876 in the Saginaw River basin; 1854, 1858, 1868, 1869, and 1887 in the Kalamazoo River basin; 1902 in the Clinton River basin and Detroit area; and 1863 and 1902 in the Ontonagon River basin.
The areal extent and severity of five major Michigan floods are shown in figure 3. Annual-peak-discharge data for the six representative gaging stations and the magnitude of discharges having 10-year and 100-year recurrence intervals at each station also are shown. Most floods have caused personal hardship and property damage; many have caused deaths. The five major floods discussed in this section were among the most severe in Michigan in terms of magnitude, areal extent, loss of life, and property damage.
L ate winter and spring floods are, by far, the most common in Michigan. More than 90 percent of the annual peak discharges of the Red Cedar River at East Lansing (fig. 3, site 3), the Muskegon River at Evart, and the Sturgeon River near Sidnaw (fig. 3, site 1) have occurred from December 1 through June 1. Typically, frontal systems produce a light to moderate, but steady and widespread, rainfall on a saturated snowpack. The upper soil layer typically is frozen and impervious to moisture infiltration. Runoff is increased by the melting snowpack and the frozen soils. Flood stages also are commonly increased by backwater from ice jams, as river ice accumulates where it is unable to flow around bends or past obstacles.
Summer and fall floods that are caused by intense, localized thunderstorms can be equally or more devastating than those caused by widespread rainfall on snowpack and frozen soils. Two examples of late summer floods are the September storms in 1985 and 1986, which produced substantial runoff and damage.
Flooding is frequent in the southern two-thirds of the Lower Peninsula. Much of this area consists of population centers built on glacial lakebeds along Saginaw Bay (Lake Huron), Lake St. Clair, and Lake Erie, where land-surface relief is minimal, and soils are relatively impermeable. During wet periods, floods are common; during dry periods, some small streams have no flow. Much of the State's flood-prone lands are within this area. Flood damage in Michigan is estimated to range from $60 to $100 million annually (Great Lakes and Water Resources Planning Commission, 1987, p. 61).
One of the most disastrous and extensive floods in the southern Lower Peninsula was in March 1904. Runoff resulting from rainfall during March 24-27 was compounded by snowpack and frozen soils. The rain was caused by a frontal system that moved landward from Lake Michigan. Much of the snowfall during the winter had compacted and formed an ice layer at the ground surface. Near Williamston, more than 100 inches of snow fell between November 1903 and March 1904. Ground frost prevented infiltration of snowmelt.
Flooding in March 1904 was most prevalent in the Grand River, Saginaw River, Kalamazoo River, and River Raisin basins. Flooding in the St. Joseph and Huron River basins was less severe. Few gaging stations were in operation in 1904 to document the magnitude of the flood; however, on the basis of available data, peak discharges in the Grand and Saginaw River basins were greater than discharges expected to recur once in 100 years. Recurrence intervals in the St. Joseph and Huron River basins ranged from 25 to 50 years. Overall, in the southern Lower Peninsula, the flood peaks resulting from this flood are the highest associated with spring flooding since recordkeeping began.
As a result of the 1904 flood in Grand Rapids, about 14,000 people were temporarily homeless, 2,500 homes were surrounded by floodwater, 30 factories were closed, and about 10,000 people became unemployed. The estimated damage was $2 million (U.S. Weather Bureau, 1904). In Lansing, the flood of 1904 was the most extensive in 135 years of local history. One fatality was reported, and damage was $200,000 (U.S. Weather Bureau, 1904). At Bay City, the flood was described as the most severe since 1887. Numerous dams were washed away or badly undermined. Highway and railroad bridges sustained considerable damage; railroad traffic was stopped entirely because bridges and sections of track were washed out. In Kalamazoo, the flood inundated about 2 mi2 (square miles) and caused damage of $50,000 (U.S. Weather Bureau, 1904). Temporary closings of numerous factories idled about 1,300 people. Transportation services were hindered, but no lives were lost.
The flood of April 4-11, 1947, was the most damaging at many locations since the flood of 1904. The meteorological conditions that led to flooding began with a snowfall in March 1947. On April 1, an eastward-moving frontal system caused thunderstorms in the extreme southern Lower Peninsula. On April 2, rainfall was increased by the slow movement of the frontal system and by an abundance of warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. A second frontal system that had originated in the Southwestern United States reached Michigan on April 4. Thunderstorms were moderate to intense during April 4-6. Jackson received almost 5 inches of rain, and a wide area between Benton Harbor and Detroit received more than 3 inches. In the Flint area, average precipitation was 2.3 inches. As with the flood of 1904, melting snow in some areas combined with rainfall runoff to increase streamflow. Frozen soil may have limited moisture infiltration in some areas.
The areas affected by the April 1947 flood included the Kalamazoo River, Grand River, Saginaw River, St. Clair River, Clinton River, and River Rouge. Many streams within an area bounded by Kalamazoo, Flint, Mt. Clemens, and Detroit had peak discharges with recurrence intervals of greater than 25 years. In the Kalamazoo River basin, Battle Creek at Battle Creek (fig. 3, site 2) had a peak discharge of 3,640 ft3/s (cubic feet per second), which corresponded to a recurrence interval of about 50 years. In the Flint River basin, the recurrence interval of peak discharge for Farmers Creek near Lapeer (fig. 3, site 4) was about 50 years. Streams in several smaller areas had discharges with recurrence intervals equal to or greater than 100 years.
In Flint, many industries, including automotive industries located near the river, were affected by the April 1947 flood. Damage in this area totaled about $4 million (Wiitala and others, 1963). The peak discharge of the Flint River recorded at Flint had a recurrence interval of about 100 years. At Northville, flooding on the Middle Branch River Rouge was the most damaging on record (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1971, p. 24). The floodwaters filled basements and inundated the first floors of some residences. In the Clinton River basin, the peak discharge associated with the April 1947 (fig. 3, site 6) flood was the largest in 53 years of record; however, a flood in 1902 in southeastern Michigan before streamflow records began may have exceeded the 1947 flood in magnitude.
Record floods were widespread in the Upper Peninsula on April 24-26 and May 7-12, 1960. The April flood affected primarily the western Upper Peninsula; rainfall in the central and eastern Upper Peninsula was moderate, but flooding was minimal. Although most snowpack in open areas had melted, melting of snowpack in timbered areas contributed to the runoff. The May flood affected the central and eastern Upper PeninsulaŅan area that still had substantial antecedent moisture from the April storm. Both floods resulted from frontal systems that formed in the Western United States. The frontal systems collided with warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and caused intense rainfall. Rainfall was 3-5 inches during April 24-26 and 4-6 inches during May 6-12. The unusually long duration of these storms was caused by stagnation of the low-pressure system centered over Lake Michigan.
The two 1960 floods had large areas where recurrence intervals of peak discharge ranged from 25 to 50 years; each flood had small areas where recurrence intervals were greater than 50 years (fig. 3). The April flood in the Montreal, Black, and Presque Isle River basins in the extreme western end of the Upper Peninsula had a recurrence interval of 100 years. The May flood in the Manistique River basin in the central Upper Peninsula had a recurrence interval greater than 100 years. Of the 34 gaging stations in operation in the flood-affected area during 1960, record peak discharges were recorded at 23. Except for parts of the Ontonagon River basin that were inundated in 1942, many of these peak discharges remain as the maximum for the period of record. Because much of the area was neither densely populated nor industrialized, losses from flood damage were relatively small. Damage was estimated to be $575,000 and was limited mainly to flooding of residences and businesses and to washouts of roadways and bridges.
During April 18-24, 1975, a major flood affected the southern Lower Peninsula. Rainfall during April 18-19, 1975, was intense; rainfall totals ranged from 3 to 5 inches. Near Williamston and East Lansing, 4-5 inches of rain fell in 7 hours on April 18. Precipitation of that intensity has a recurrence interval of about 100 years. Antecedent moisture was increased by a snowfall of as much as 13 inches over most of the area 2 weeks before the rainstorm. Soils had become saturated, and temperatures had increased sufficiently to cause streams to have relatively large discharges before the flood-producing rain fell.
Flood peaks occurred between April 19 and 22, 1975, primarily in the Kalamazoo, Grand, Flint, and Shiawassee River basins and several small basins in the Port Huron and Mt. Clemens area. The magnitude of the flooding differed among localities. Near Williamston, the flood magnitude was slightly less than that of a flood having a 100-year recurrence interval. At East Lansing, the flood of April 1975 had a recurrence interval of about 40 years. On the basis of streamflow records for the Red Cedar River at East Lansing (fig. 3, site 3), the April 1975 flood level was the highest since the flood of 1904 and was approximately equal to that of April 1947. The river reached a stage of 12 feet, which was 5 feet above the flood stage (7 feet) established by the NWS. Two gaging stations in the upper Shiawassee River basin recorded discharges having recurrence intervals greater than 50 years. Flooding having a recurrence interval greater than 25 years affected the Lower Peninsula in a band from near Kalamazoo to near Port Huron (fig. 3).
Flooding in 1975 was most severe in the Lansing metropolitan area and, to a lesser extent, the Flint area. Damage to private and public property in all areas affected by the flood was $50 million (David Charne, Michigan State Police, oral commun., 1989). In Lansing, about 175 homes sustained damage totaling at least one-half their value, 4,500 homes received lesser damage, and additional losses were incurred by schools, utilities, hospitals, and transportation systems (Miller and Swallow, 1975).
The September 10-15, 1986, flood was caused by rainfall from a low-pressure system that developed over the central Great Plains. Northeastward movement of the system produced a warm front that extended across the central part of the Lower Peninsula. The precipitation was caused by warm, moist air south of the front that collided with cold air from the north. The absence of upper atmospheric winds caused the storm to remain relatively stationary over the State for several days. In the areas of greatest rainfall, quantities ranged from about 8 to 13 inches. More than 10 inches of rain fell in 2 days within a 3,500-mi2 area.
New period-of-record maximums were recorded at 14 gaging stations. The Pere Marquette River at Scottville attained a new maximum discharge (6,440 ft3/s), more than twice the previous maximum discharge (2,970 ft3/s) recorded in 1969. In the Tittabawassee River basin, the Chippewa River near Mt. Pleasant (fig. 3, site 5) had a peak discharge of 6,660 ft3/s. This peak discharge is the largest since the 1904 peak discharge of 7,110 ft3/s. The Tittabawassee River at Midland peaked at 38,700 ft3/s, which exceeded the previous maximum of 34,800 ft3/s on March 28, 1916. In 1986, the river crested more than 4 feet above the 1916 peak. The discharge of the Saginaw River at Saginaw was less than the discharge of the 1904 flood. Many of the peak discharges, including those on the Chippewa and Pere Marquette Rivers, had recurrence intervals greater than 100 years.
The flood of September 10-15, 1986, resulted in unprecedented damage. The flooding caused 6 deaths, injured 89, contributed to the failure of 14 dams, threatened 19 additional dams, and caused basement flooding or structural damage to about 30,000 homes (Miller and Blumer, 1988). Four primary road bridges and hundreds of secondary road bridges and culverts failed, making 3,600 miles of roadway impassable. Total damage to homes, businesses, public structures, and harvest-ready agricultural crops was $500 million (David Charne, Michigan State Police, oral commun., 1989). A 30-county area of the State was declared a Federal disaster area. Crop damage was severe, especially in the Saginaw River basin, where dikes were breached and thousands of acres of sugar beets, beans, potatoes, corn, and other vegetables were ruined. Of Michigan's 12 million acres of cultivated land, about 1.5 million acres were affected. In addition to the extensive crop losses, more than 1,200 farm-related structures were flooded.