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“Sanford Voices Project” documents immediate aftermath of devastating floods

It’s been almost a year and a half since devastating floods struck the Sanford community, following the failure of two dams on the Tittabawassee River. Within a few days, a crew from WCMU and Central Michigan University set out to document the immediate aftermath of the floods.

The result is a documentary called “The Sanford Voices Project,” which premieres Friday Sept. 26 at 7pm on WCMU Public Television.

Richard Rothaus, the dean of CMU’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, is a producer on the project. He discussed it with WCMU’s Mike Horace.

Mike Horace: As you started out working on the Sanford voices project, what was your goal? And how did you get involved with this?

Richard Rothaus: We I moved pretty quickly. And I, I had my partner Adam Miedema, I had never actually met him in person. But we knew each other from a video call and just knew each other around. My goal was to get out quickly and collect the stories of individuals. I'd worked on a few other disaster situations, not necessarily collecting people's stories, but it had revealed to me how important it was to go out there and collect individual stories of how people and families have traversed the disaster experience. So the goal was to get there quickly. And then to stay there. And we're still working on it as best as we can. So the movie will come out, but I'll be appearing periodically as I can to follow up with some of the individuals.

Mike Horace: Why was it so important to hear those stories, so soon after the disaster hit?

Richard Rothaus: We don't need it's important because people's perceptions change. It's also important because people and communities need to know someone cares, that there's someone who's interested in their story beyond the quick news clip, not that the news isn't important, obviously, that plays a really important role in getting relief and funding and all that in there. But it's important, they know that someone really cares deeply about their story, and how it impacts them and their family on a really deep level. And some of the things that the news just doesn't have time to cover, like, what exactly happened to your house? What are you going to do for clothing? Where's grandma's china now? How does your family go on when you don't have any family photos, and then to come back and revisit those sorts of things. It really makes a difference in a community when they know someone cares. Someone on the outside really understands how deep and actually permanent this sort of trauma is.

Mike Horace: Sanford is a village with a very long history, and this is going to be a big part of their history moving forward isn't it?

Richard Rothaus: It is definitely and there's really multiple phases to this. One of the ways I think about this, and certainly a lot of people there think about is, if you go to Sanford now, externally, a lot of the recovery is approaching completion, storefronts are back up, stores are open. If you need a haircut, you can go to CJs which is reopened. And Connie will take care of you and give you a great conversation. The outside is complete. Is Connie's healing complete his her family put back together. No, of course not. This is going to take a long time. So the outside is done. The inside is going to take a very long time. And for some people, I mean, it'll never be done. They're going to take it to their grave what's happened there and it'll be passed on to their children. This is one of the things as a historian and archaeologist, I think about a lot. When a flood comes, it takes away all that we call it material culture, all the things we have in our houses. This was great grandma's dealey bopper, I don't even know what it was. But isn't it cool and great grandma had it that's going for these families.

Mike Horace: So many of the people that you interviewed for this project, they knew they live downstream from dams, there's an inherent risk that comes in living in some of those areas. Yet, did you get the sense from the residents of Sanford that they ever thought that something like this could happen?

Richard Rothaus: Yes, and no. I mean, there's inherent risk. But what happened in Sanford wasn't a flood as in, Oh, my gosh, it rained so much. No dams could have held it. This was a catastrophic dam failure. I try not to delve into the politics. I'm focused on families and their stories. But I mean, the reality is, these were man made catastrophes. There were structures that were not properly maintained. That failed. So that certainly puts a flavor on it. In the movie, and also in our conversations with them, this this caught them by surprise. And I think all of us don't think about this very much. But this is a Michigan problem. It's a nationwide problem. Our infrastructure is really, really weak. I think anyone who lives along the waterway, I certainly did. I live not very close to the Chippewa River. But the first thing I did after our first weekend of interviewing is I got back and I checked up on the status of dams on the Chippewa River wasn't very happy with what I found. I'm not in any danger, but I'm not completely out of danger. It's a catastrophe that could have been avoided with proper maintenance of those structures. That's a little pollyannish. I know that that's that's big money to do that. But everyone in that community knows that that this is it. The heavens opened in God did it, there's nothing that can be done about it. There's a strong undercurrent that

Mike Horace: You were there in the aftermath of these dam failures. What was it like in those initial days, right after the dams failed, and then the water receded?

Richard Rothaus: The initial days were course terrible. We only did one interview, we were there. Pretty much. As soon as the waters receded, obviously, it was the wrong time to stop and talk to people. They were very busy. So we went out and shot some footage. But we weren't trying to do any interviews right then. We did one, actually two, because people stopped us and talked to us. And so okay, if they want to do an interview, that's fine. What struck us, and actually, one of the interesting things is my partner, Adam and I, we were doing a driving tour to sort of figure out where are we going to focus? So here's Adam and I, it's the middle of COVID. So we're driving separate vehicles is pre vaccines, being very cautious. We'd never met in person, we're just going to drive town to town and figure out where are we going to focus? There's only two of us at that point. We need to see what can two people reasonably do. We hit Sanford it's completely devastated. And there's just this army of people, mostly local, they're working cleaning out businesses, Sanford hardware, what you can see footage of this in, in the film, the whole community has come out, to empty out the hardware store to salvage what can be salvaged. And, and then we start to go into the communities and there's just crews of volunteers, going house to house doing exactly what needs to be done after a flood. If your house gets hit by water. If you've ever dealt with this, you know, you have to immediately especially in the summer, the drywall has to come out the carpet has to come out anything that got wet has to be stripped within 48, 72 hours at the most or you've got a mold problem that can perhaps make that house unlivable forever. There are people going house to house saying, I don't know you. But I'm your neighbor. And we're going to help you and just going into the house removing everything and stripping that stuff out. And Adam and I just looked at us and said, Sanford is the place. This is the story.

Mike Horace: Watching the film, you get a sense of the sadness that so many of the residents there are feeling. But I could also sense a lot of hope in the community as well. Was that something you picked up on as you were talking with people?

Richard Rothaus: Absolutely. The hope and the sadness is strong. And it's it was very strong. But the hope was there from day one. And the hope was there because the community came together. And I I've been to you know, several disasters. It's not like I do this for a living. I work at universities for a living. But for a variety reasons. I've been done a number of disaster areas. The hope was stronger than anything I've ever seen. I'm sure it's happened in other tight knit communities. But it was amazing. And it came as far as I can tell, because the community really pulled together. And instead of people turning inward and focusing on their own problems, they made this quick evaluation saying I've got a small problem. My yard's ruined and I got water in my garage. But my neighbor, his house was full of water all the way up to the second floor. I'm gonna go help my neighbor, my problem can wait or which the thing I find so amazing. The downtown people realized, probably without thinking about it, you know, on a sort of spreadsheet way, the downtown is screwed. We've got to go save the downtown, it's the heart of the community. So here's the hardware store, it's a store and they go down to help save the store. And if we had that hit in our community, would we really rush out to save Home Depot or Menards? Probably not. That's the type of community Sanford is. I think that's where the hope came from. They went to work. And because of that hard work, they realized, we can do this. How, you know, as the village president Dolores talks about in the movie, how is a difficult question, but when do you get to work, you get this sense of Yep, we can do this.

Mike Horace: Is there one particular story or one interview that really stands out to you from this project?

Richard Rothaus: I'm the one that I'm sitting here with goosebumps just thinking about it. I'll try not to cry. But Cammy May, who appears briefly in the documentary Cammy may has a devastating story. And I'm editing all these interviews, so they will appear in a book that will release put it online for free when the editing is done. Editing books takes even longer than editing video, but it will cut out. Cammy May's house had been flooded and totaled in an earlier flood in Sanford, so everything in the house was pretty much destroyed. She had just straightened out her claim with FEMA, she had just finished restoring her house getting some possessions back in it. And then with this series of dam failures, not only, and you can see this clip in the movie, not only was her house hit, it was gone, like down river doesn't exist anymore. And here she is, starting again. That's just a horror story. And, and it just it breaks my heart but also fills my heart with hope because Cammy encouraged by her significant other interviewed with us and, and life goes on. She's going to start again after that. And she's an amazingly strong woman, and just keeps going. And there are other people who had that same situation. There are other stories with people who didn't lose, you know, the house didn't float down the river, but people who are in into retirement. And and now everything's gone on lots of stories like that lots of them.

Mike Horace: You mentioned at the beginning of this interview, how the recovery is ongoing and Sanford outward appearances show that things are getting back to normal. How are the people in Sanford? Now? How are things generally in the village?

Richard Rothaus: Well, you know, I don't want to over generalize for the whole village because like any project, there's a cluster of people I'm interviewing. There's far more people I don't know it all. And I'll always be an outsider to the village. I think things are going well. There's been a great focus on the young people on making sure that the people are cared for. There's counselors in the area, there's a social worker who, forgive me, I forgotten his name. I'll think of it as soon as I leave the studio, who has been working with people having discussion groups. I think people are healing very quickly. Glenn Moot who's also in the movie talks about this, that there's the individual healing process doesn't follow the same timeline, necessarily as the structure healing process, because you got to get your houses fixed fast, you have to live in them for the winter. That's a pretty fast timeline. But I think as the community comes back together, it gives people something to focus on that outside of themselves, which is such a big part of, of healing. I think that's made the big difference for Sanford, if they had atomized, if they just focused on their own problems. I think it would have been a very different story. That's one of the reasons why I want to continue with the project as best I can over the next couple of years and keep going back and, and doing interviews to see how people are falling because trauma is deep takes years and years and years to resolve and it'll be like everything else it'll be different. Sanford will be different when it comes through on the other side. Different, better in some ways, but also different.

Mike Horace: The Sanford voices project premieres Friday, September 26 at 7pm on WCMU Public Television. Richard, thank you so much for coming in today and telling us about it.

Richard Rothaus: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.