Sandbags protect the Grand Rapids Wastewater Plant from flood water after record-setting rains swelled the Grand River. Photo by Mike Nichols
Mike Lunn and his team at the Grand Rapids Wastewater Plant are exhausted.
Lunn, director of the city’s environmental protective services, has had a long and expensive battle on his hands, keeping the record-setting Grand River floodwaters out of the plant at 1300 Market Ave. SW.
What this battle will cost and where that money will come from, he isn’t sure right now, he said, but hopes to have those numbers next week.
“We’ll probably look for ways to get funded other ways. I don’t know how much it’s all going to cost. We had a lot of people and equipment here for three days,” he said. “We spent about $300,000 on materials and supplies. For sand, we bought 5,000 yards worth, so we have about $50,000 invested in sand, on top of that. Let’s say we’re going to be in the neighborhood of half a million dollars.”
The Grand Rapids city sewer fund has a $52 million budget and serves nine West Michigan communities, Lunn said. According to its website, the wastewater plant treats 17.97 million gallons annually and has a daily average of 49.2 million gallons, with a peak of 90 million gallons per day. It is designed for a capacity of 61.1 gallons per day.
Lunn said he was a shift supervisor at a plant in Flint that flooded in 1986. From that experience, he knew that if the Grand Rapids plant flooded, it would be catastrophic, costing millions and creating a public sanitation emergency.
Had update work not been invested on the Grand Rapids floodwall years ago, the city could have shared the same fate Flint once did, he said.
“You can see the investment that the city of Grand Rapids has made in that floodwall. In 1999 we beefed it up … and since 1981, we’ve worked on our sanitary sewer systems and made a good storm-water infrastructure,” he said. “We’ve had very few problems with people and houses that we had to help out compared to where we would have been 20 years ago.”
To prevent his plant from flooding this time, Lunn put about 70 to 80 people to work for 16 hours a day on different flood projects, moving critical equipment out of the facility and building a fortress of about 6,000 feet of “trap bags” around the structure, all while keeping the plant functioning.
“Personally, I didn’t sleep much,” Lunn said, recounting all the different meetings and flood preparations he and his team have been doing since last Wednesday.
“A lot of my employees have worked 16 hours a day for the last four days. A lot of other city staff has done that. We’ve literally had hundreds of employees working 12 to 20 hour days since Wednesday.”
Lunn said many of the staff will get overtime pay and/or extra vacation time for their efforts. They all deserve it, he said, adding that the community involvement was also an outstanding aid during the crisis.
“There’s hundreds of stories,” he said. “We had contractors we paid and contractors who were volunteers … I don’t even know; we’re trying to make a list. I had one employee show up with a semi and a flat-bed from a buddy’s company and he spent three days hauling sandbags around town in a truck somebody donated for him to drive.”
Lunn said he has nothing but thanks for the staff and community help during the flood. What cleanup will look like (for example, where do you put 4,000 yards worth of sand?), he isn’t sure, but for now Grand Rapids has weathered the worst, he said.
“As the water migrates out, we’re concerned there are voids and other things that might cause us some problems, so we’re still going to watch it as the water goes down,” he said. “We’re doing checks up and down the river. The whole city is watching the floodwall … when that river gets down to 10 feet and the weather patterns look good, I think we’ll be OK.”