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‘Out in a Flash’: A Story of Evacuating During 2020 Flood

"We reached out to ... the only people within 50 miles who might allow us and our pets to stay. They agreed, and within 30 minutes we were packed and out the door."

A view of the flooded area near the Sanford Dam on Tuesday, May 19, 2020.
A view of the flooded area near the Sanford Dam on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. Residents were told to evacuate due to the dams on Sanford and Wixom lakes no longer being able to control or contain the amount of water flowing through the spill gates.
(TNS) - Four years ago, I was heading back to my home off of Sanford Lake for the first time since being evacuated.

I was with my dad, whom I very much needed with me for mental and physical support — depending on how much damage had been done to the house.

I had spent the week imagining a worst-case scenario brought about by a historic flood which was beginning to make headlines across the world.

As we came to my street, my gut sank.

A rude awakening

Five days earlier, during a rainy night on May 18, 2020, I checked my basement for water before heading to bed.

My then-fiancée, Taylor, and I had been battling issues with flooding in our basement since we bought the house in August 2019.

So I was uneasy and checked the basement before bed almost every time it rained.

I had recently had a city water backup sump pump installed in addition to my main pump to help battle the spring rains.

Fortunately, my basement was bone dry that dry. I felt a bit better about the situation and was able to fall asleep that night without much of a worry.

But then, I awoke at 2 a.m. to the sound of our doorbell.

My first thought was that karma had finally caught up with me from my childhood days of late-night ding-dong-ditching.

But when I approached the front door and saw flashing red lights at the end of my driveway, my mood shifted.

It was the fire department. The man at the door was urging me to evacuate my home immediately due to an imminent dam breach.

"A what?"

On the way back to the bedroom, I pinched myself.

Taylor was sitting up in bed on her phone.

"They're evacuating everyone," she said, pointing to an emergency notification on her phone.

The alert mirrored the words of the fireman.

Finding higher ground

"What do we do?"

"Where do we go?"

We had to find somewhere to stay that would take in the two of us as well as our dog and cat.

We reached out to some friends in east Midland — the only people within 50 miles who might allow us and our pets to stay. They agreed, and within 30 minutes we were packed and out the door.

We got to their apartment around 3 a.m.

The four of us (pets included) had to cram into a spare bedroom in order to keep our pets from pestering the host cats.

It was about 5 a.m. when we finally settled down and began to find sleep.

My phone alarm rang at 6:30 and I slowly, quietly got ready for work.

It was a Tuesday — the only day of the week that I was unable to call off work. Yes, even in a situation like this.

Since the dam had not actually breached overnight, I took the time to stop by the house, which was on my way to work in Gladwin. I checked the basement — still dry.

Tired — but a bit more at ease now — I headed into work.

A close call

I punched out at 5 p.m., eager to check the house over again and make sure it was safe to move back.

I was heading east on Curtis Rd. toward N. Lake Sanford Rd. around 5:30. I had an eerie feeling as I was the only car heading east, while dozens were heading west — including a few news vans.

About halfway down Curtis, my phone lit up.

"Emergency Alert: The Edenville Dam has failed and is breached. Evacuate downstream immediately."

Before I had time to react, my boss called me.

"Don't go home, get out of the area."

When I hung up, my dad was calling.

"You're not home, are you?"

Then Taylor.

"Get out of there!"

I spun around when there was a gap in westbound traffic and hightailed it back to M-18, then down to US-10.

Mine was the very last car to cross the US-10 bridge over Sanford Lake before the bridge was closed.

As I cleared the east end of the bridge, two county police cars swooped in behind me to block the road.

Getting out of Dodge

At the apartment, Taylor had everything packed up again.

The City of Midland had issued an evacuation order as well. She showed me pictures of patients being evacuated from the hospital on gurneys.

I called my parents, and soon we were back on the road, bound for my childhood home in Greenville (near Grand Rapids).

However, in order to head southwest, we were going to have to cross the Tittabawassee River.

My hope was that I wouldn't have to double our time by driving north to avoid any road closures.

Fortunately, we were in my pickup when we forded the flooded roadways on Gordonville Rd. A couple of cars were parked just before the flooded road, unconfident in their ability to cross.

The rest of our drive was quiet — we were both distracted by a bombardment of thoughts.

A haven downstate

When we got to my parents' house, there were lots of hugs and more unpacking to do. When we were done getting settled, we took the time to check out any updates on the situation back in Sanford.

We understood our power had gone out back at home. All I could hope was that our city water sump pump was doing some good — though in my imagination, the water was up to the ceiling of my eight-foot basement.

We decided that we would stay put until power was restored and our roads were open. We were able to find a flood map online, which showed the water levels in specific areas.

Thankfully, the water didn't quite come to our driveway on the map — but how accurate was the map, really?

When we saw a post about our electrical substation being completely underwater, we knew we weren't going anywhere soon.

Hurry up and wait

Over the following days at my parents' house, I continued to join Zoom calls from local governments and groups dedicated to recovery efforts.

We saw photos and videos of a flooded Downtown Sanford, US-10 bridge and even a full modular home floating down " Sanford Lake."

During our stay, my mom encouraged Taylor and me to do a pottery project with her to "keep your mind off things."

We each had a piece of pottery to paint, which my mom would then take to get fired and bring back as a keepsake.

It turned out this idea backfired, because with my blank canvas coffee mug I painted a scene of our home surrounded by flood waters. I bolded "2020" on the handle — not that I'd ever forget.

Navigating the fallout

We got a notification that our power had come back thanks to a temporary power station, and on Saturday, May 23, my dad and I set out to see the damage first-hand.

The drive leading to the house was harrowing.

Downtown Sanford was a cloud of dust and destruction from all the sediment and debris carried downstream. Some roads with bridges and culverts were still closed.

The lake was now a field with a river running through it. The creeks running off the lake were dry.

Pontoons and docks were tossed about the banks of the dry lakebed. It looked like something out of a movie.

Home sweet home

And there we were, turning on to my road — my heart racing. The house was still standing — that's good — and not amongst flood waters like on my coffee mug.

Inside, everything was still as Taylor and I had left it.

I still remember the gut-wrenching feeling I had opening the door to the basement. As the door creaked open, I flicked the basement light on.

It was dry.

The whole basement was dry, and the city water pump was continuously running to keep it that way.

I dropped to the bottom step of my basement stairs and took a moment to breathe and be thankful.

Finding hope

Although our fridge and freezer food had spoiled and our next city water bill was over $500, I couldn't believe our home had made it through the flood.

Over the next few months, I made sure to help those less fortunate — neighbors, communities and even some businesses.

This was the largest volunteer effort I had ever seen. The flood recovery efforts being made brought hope to those who had gone throughout exactly what I did — but without a happy ending.

Four years later, people are still recovering and looking to put this event behind them.

Once they do, I hope they have a chance to tell their story.

Max Milne's backup sump pump died a day after he and Taylor returned home. He had it fixed, and regularly maintains what he now calls "the little pump that could." Email him at

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