Urban flooding research focused on climate equity in southeast Michigan

Flood damages in Detroit

A vehicle is abandoned in floodwaters on I-94 that overwhelmed the interstate on June 25, 2021. The floodwaters had yet to subside when this photo was made three days later.Nicole Hester/

A new pilot project to find ways to inject equity considerations into transportation planning in southeast Michigan will focus on how urban flooding affects historically disadvantaged communities.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and partner agencies are launching this research project to better create infrastructure that is more resilient to flooding impacts from climate change. The study’s focus will be to better understand how transportation disruptions during major urban flooding events affect areas already struggling with poverty challenges.

NOAA will contribute $150,000 to the study, which includes partner groups the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), Fernleaf Interactive, and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research.

The goal is to develop ways to make decisions about transportation projects that advance equity and climate resilience in the seven-county southeast Michigan region.

The partnership also will analyze data to examine how equity and climate resilience are factored into decision making about project approval and prioritization.

Results of the study are expected to be shared with federal aid agencies, as well as influence regional transportation planning, and a flooding mitigation study.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer looks at flood damages in Detroit

Vehicles sit in floodwaters on I-94 that overwhelmed the interstate on June 25, 2021. The floodwaters had yet to subside three days later in Detroit.Nicole Hester/

Officials said this work will advance conversations between NOAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation about how to include equity-centered climate resilience into transportation planning.

“This collaborative effort demonstrates how NOAA puts equity into action by working with communities from start to finish to provide meaningful insight and information about their local climate risks,” said Rick Spinrad, NOAA administrator.

“Ensuring that vulnerable and historically disadvantaged communities can be more intentionally considered when transportation decisions are made is an important step toward resilience,” Spinrad said in a written statement.

Amy O’Leary, SEMCOG executive director, said the major road flooding challenges faced by communities in southeast Michigan after severe storms are getting worse. Officials there are excited for the data this pilot research study will provide, she said.

The pilot study was developed in response to feedback during a 2021 climate and equity roundtable focused on urban flooding in Detroit.

The Michigan-based research is among six other, climate-related studies planned across the United States that will, in coming years, focus specifically on how vulnerable communities can improve understanding of climate change and prepare for its effects. The other studies will focus on: Mississippi River hydrology changes; impacts to traditionally reliable Hawaiian food sources; coastal flooding and stormwater controls in several Connecticut cities; building capacity for heat resilience in four major cities (Miami, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Charleston, S.C.); and establishing a director of tribal climate change initiatives at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.