A long-abandoned factory floor on Detroit’s west side is 4 inches deep in gushing water. At the Belle Isle Nature Zoo, which closed 11 years ago, water still sprouts from a hole in the pavement like a fountain. And in the basement of a small abandoned church, water flowed so furiously from broken pipes that neighbors could hear what sounded like a raging river.
It’s a common problem throughout a city with more than 85,000 vacant buildings and not enough employees to handle the fallout of chronic abandonment.
Over the past six months, we inspected more than 100 vacant homes, schools, libraries churches, hospitals, factories and government buildings and found that roughly 20% still had running, leaking water. Even two vacant fire stations were flooded with water after thieves stole copper pipes.
Who pays for the running water? You do.
Detroit’s budget cuts have made it impossible for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to keep pace with water shutoffs for inactive or unpaid accounts. In just the past year, the department has shed more than 300 jobs. And more layoffs are anticipated in the near future.
No one knows for sure how many buildings are leaking water or how much it is costing customers. But one thing is certain: The city is woefully behind in shutting off water in thousands of vacant buildings.
The city continues to drain its population, leaving homes vacant for thieves and arsonists. Scrappers waste no time stealing metal pipes, causing gushing leaks that can go unaddressed for a decade.
We also found that homes destroyed in fires often spew out water for months before the utility is shut off.
Over the past two years, Stan Brown said he’s heard gushing water from the basement of his neighbor’s abandoned house on Garland Street and took us down the wobbly wooden stairs to show a knee-high pool of water that streamed from somewhere in the dark basement.
“Pretty disgusting, isn’t it?” Brown asked. “It’s no wonder people are leaving Detroit.”
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.