An earthen dam weakened by several days of heavy rain burst Thursday, unleashing a torrent that washed away a highway bridge and forcing more than 300 people to flee two towns, officials said.
Storms have dumped up to 13 inches of rain across Michigan’s Lower Peninsula since Tuesday, leaving three people dead, forcing hundreds to evacuate and flooding thousands of homes.
The Hart Dam “just gave way,” said Oceana County sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Fox.
That collapse drained Hart Lake, endangering homes built on shoreline embankments in Hart, and sent a surge of water toward Pentwater, about five miles down the Pentwater River.
The water destroyed the southbound span of a bridge carrying U.S. 31 over the river and weakened the northbound span to the point that it was “likely to go down soon,” said Lowell Rinker, a spokesman for the Oceana County Civil Defense Office.
No injuries were immediately reported, said county sheriff’s dispatcher Diane Greiner.
About 250 Pentwater residents were forced from their homes along Pentwater Lake, said Lt. Tom Altland, who was at the state police post at Hart. Most were staying at Pentwater High School, Rinker said. In Hart, about 60 people were evacuated.
“There are a lot of houses on high banks along the lake shore,” he said. “As Hart Lake is being emptied out, those embankments are caving away.”
Officials feared that foundations would shift and that gas lines would rupture as the land settled, but a collapsed parking lot was the only immediately reported damage, Rinker said.
Other Dams Threatened
The rain threatened at least five other dams, prompting Gov. James J. Blanchard to activate the National Guard. One person was reported missing, and millions of dollars in damage was reported in the Saginaw area.
The storms knocked out power to more than 60,000 customers, injured an estimated 20 people and prompted declarations of emergencies in six counties and the city of Saginaw.
Forty guardsmen and nine 20-ton dump trucks had been sent to Hart to help stem the Pentwater River, said the Guard’s Lt. Col. H. A. Stull.
About 20 miles southeast of Hart, authorities released water to relieve pressure on the White River Dam, said Newaygo County sheriff’s Deputy Joe Dubois.
A dam at the Hardy hydroelectric power plant, on the Muskegon River near White Cloud, was threatening to give way Thursday night, said Paul Knopick, a spokesman for dam owner Consumers Power Co.
“Our fear is, if that dam is breached, we would have problems all down the river,” Knopick said. “We are urging people nearby to evacuate. . . . It’s a serious situation.”
Flooded classrooms and offices forced officials to close Central Michigan University on Thursday and Friday, said school spokeswoman Jo Stephenson.
Those killed by Michigan’s foul weather included a teen-aged boy who was presumed drowned; a Stanton woman who died Wednesday when lightning struck her and an Otsego woman who perished when a tree felled by high winds crushed the car in which she was sitting.
Stormy weather also struck Wisconsin, with nearly 7 inches of rain falling in the southeastern part of the state, flooding streets and basements, injuring two people and causing millions of dollars in damage.