30th anniversary of 1986 flood - WNEM TV 5

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30th anniversary of 1986 flood

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Courtesy: National Weather Service in Detroit Courtesy: National Weather Service in Detroit
By Gratiot and River Roads. (Courtesy: Ronald Picardi) By Gratiot and River Roads. (Courtesy: Ronald Picardi)

Thirty years ago today, Mid-Michigan faced one of the worst flooding disasters in state history. A flooding disaster that not only impacted our area, but also western areas of Central Lower Michigan and Southeast Lower Michigan.

Weather Summary

The rain started falling late Tuesday night on September 9th, 1986 as a stationary front was draped west to east over Central Lower Michigan.

A moisture-laden air mass that moved north from the Gulf of Mexico, set up shop right along the frontal boundary. We also had just the right wind pattern in the upper part of the atmosphere to prevent that front from making much progress.

With those two conditions in place, we had the perfect recipe for a persistent rainfall over the same area, creating what meteorologist's call "train-echoes". Once the rain started, it continued until Friday September 12th.

Rainfall Totals

The average rainfall totals over the course of the event ranged from 6" to 12", with a few areas exceeding that mark up to 14" of rain. A bulk of this rainfall occurred over the course of 12 hours on Thursday, September 11th.

  • Highest Totals in Mid-Michigan
    • Midland: 11.78 inches
    • Caro: 11.51 inches
    • Cass City: 10.97 inches
    • Essexville: 10.67 inches
    • Saginaw: 10.50 inches
    • Millington: 10.15 inches
    • MBS Airport: 10.09 inches
    • Sebewaing: 9.71 inches
    • Sandusky: 8.75 inches
    • Bad Axe: 8.48 inches
    • Harbor Beach: 8.24 inches
    • Lapeer: 4.24 inches
    • Flint Bishop: 3.42 inches
    • Owosso: 3.25 inches

The rainfall over this period was impressive on it's own, but climatologically, it also had some significance. September 1986 ranks as the wettest month on record in Saginaw and the 3rd wettest month for Flint.

Impacts on Mid-Michigan Rivers

With the persistent heavy rainfall, we also saw a large impact in our local rivers. Several rivers established record heights during this event.

  • Mid-Michigan Rivers
    • Tittabawassee River (Midland)
      • Crest: 33.89 feet, Flood Stage: 24 feet
    • Saginaw River
      • Crest: 24.16 feet, Flood Stage: 17 feet
    • Pine River (Alma)
      • Crest: 12.82 feet, Flood Stage: 8 feet
    • Cass (Vassar)
      • Crest: 24.82 feet, Flood Stage: 14 feet
    • Cass (Frankenmuth) 
      • Crest: 27.52 feet, Flood Stage: 17 feet

Some of the most notable impacts from this flooding occurred with the Cass River in the town of Vassar. The river which has a flood stage of 14 feet, rose to over 10 feet above flood stage.

Vassar was one of the hardest hit areas with many flooded homes and downtown businesses, and with the river rising so quickly, some residents barely had time to get to safety.

Damage Summary

At the end of the event, 22 counties in the state of Michigan were declared disaster areas. This occurred over an area of 14,000 square miles, with an estimated 1.8 million residents.

Total damage costs were estimated to be between $400 and $500 million dollars at the time, or around $850 million to $1 billion dollars today. Out of that total cost, approximately $120 million ($260 million today), was due to crop damage.


Unfortunately, the flood claimed the lives of at least 10 people. Those lives lost included a hunter on the Muskegon River, a woman who drove her car off a flooded road into the Cass River, two children playing near streams that were swept away, two people that drowned in boats that fell overboard, and two men who were electrocuted operating sump pumps.

In addition to those fatalities, two farmers lost their lives by suicide after seeing the damage to their crops. Injuries in the flood were an estimated 100 people.

For additional information on this event from Bill Deedler and the National Weather Service in Detroit, head to: http://w2.weather.gov/dtx/se_flood_Sept1986.

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