When It Rains in Detroit

On of the main streets that divides Detroit from its southwestern neighbor, Dearborn, doesn’t shift elevation or air pressure. A rain gauge on either side of Tireman Road wouldn’t register much difference in precipitation, and the trees that straddle its northern and southern curbs can claim no ecological advantage over their counterparts. And yet, in the age of climate crisis, streets like Tireman are where the objective science of climate change meets the subjective machinery of American urban policy to produce rifts as profound as the greatest continental divides.

Dayale and Eric Grays live on the Detroit side of that divide, just five houses north of Tireman. Around 3 am on June 26, Dayale’s 14-year-old son woke her up. “I think you want to see this,” he said, waving her to the basement. The water was up to the second step and rising. “Go get your dad.” One of the basement freezers, still plugged in, was bobbing in the water and buzzing violently. They called the fire department, but no one showed up. Eric opened the front door and couldn’t see the street or the sidewalk or the tires on the Comcast truck he drives to work every day. The entire block was nearly porch-high in raw sewage water.

The rainfall that flooded the Grays’ home—seven inches in 12 hours—was more intense than Detroit’s last great flood, in 2014, which caused $1.8 billion in damage. This summer, the local and national media were inundated with images of drowned semis on I-94—the interstate that runs through Detroit looked like a sixth Great Lake. Thousands of homes were submerged, and over 350 cars had been drowned and totaled by the afternoon, requiring the rescue of dozens of people. And yet few think of Detroit as a center of the climate crisis. The amount of rainfall may not have compared to the 8.4 inches that Hurricane Ida dumped on some parts of the New York City region, after its long march from the Gulf Coast, or to the more than 20 inches that fell on Houston during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Days after the June flood, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan explained the damage by blaming the unexpected amount of rain: “Nobody designs systems to handle two months of rain in one day,” he said. But the reality that Detroit’s weather extremes won’t top any national charts is precisely why they’re so dangerous. The city’s existing vulnerabilities, rooted in decades of disinvestment and compound harm, give pulverizing force to even ordinary rainfall. And it’s likely that heavy rains will only get heavier and more frequent.

When the Grays were approved for their first mortgage less than two years ago, they considered buying a home on the other side of Tireman, but every realtor they contacted would suddenly vanish after their first contact. Dayale and Eric were disappointed but not surprised. Half a century after Malcolm X mentioned Dearborn as the town “where some real Ku Klux Klan live” in his “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, it’s still extremely hard for Black Detroiters to buy property there. Dearborn’s median household income is nearly double that of Detroit and the median home value roughly triple.

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