By Ruth O’Neill
It was a grey and overcast day in Detroit when I met up with Deandra Smith, director of the AmeriCorps Climate R.E.A.D.Y. program at Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies. Climate R.E.A.D.Y.–Recreation, Education, Awareness, Demonstration and Youth–is a partnership between the university and AmeriCorps, an independent agency of the United States government that offers Americans stipends to engage in volunteer service through various programs. Smith’s team focuses on making their community more resilient to climate change.
As a light rain began to fall, Smith shook it off with a smile like a true Michigander. “When it rains, we keep going,” she said. “Besides, it’s not too bad today.”
The weather seemed a fitting backdrop for the work at hand. Smith and her Climate R.E.A.D.Y. team of 11 volunteers were in the east side Detroit neighborhood of Jefferson Chalmers to help residents remedy flooding. Located near the Detroit River, this historic neighborhood is built on low-lying wetlands that French settlers referred to as the “Grand Marais” or “Great Marsh.” Smith explained that flooding has become a regular occurrence there in recent years, and in June 2021, record rainfall overwhelmed local storm drains and flooded streets and basements. We met Nick Sinacori, who owns two nearly 100-year-old duplexes in Jefferson Chalmers that were built by his grandparents. Both homes sustained significant damage in 2021. “Six feet of water in the basements. Six feet! In my lifetime, and I will be 73 next month, I have never seen this,” said Sinacori. “If my grandparents ever had to go through anything like this in their lifetime, I don’t believe they would’ve stayed here.”
Flood conditions can cause serious health problems such as sickness from mold exposure, gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses, infections, rashes, anxiety and other stress-related issues. With support from the CDC Foundation, Wayne State’s Climate R.E.A.D.Y. program gives young people the opportunity to work directly with Detroit residents to identify climate-related problems like flooding and provide interventions that help them protect their health, homes and communities.
“I try to hire people who have interest in environmental issues, so a lot of them are in school for environmental studies, environmental science or public health,” said Smith. “This is literally stuff that they’re studying in school, and now they’re able to put it into actual real-life scenarios.”
By the time I arrived, the Climate R.E.A.D.Y. team was already hard at work on Sinacori’s homes, installing rain gardens and rain barrels in the back yard. For the rain gardens, they created slightly sunken soil beds in areas where stormwater typically pools and filled them with native plants and shrubs that soak up water, including wild strawberries, rose mallow and coneflowers. They extended Sinacore’s gutters to funnel water from the roof directly into the rain gardens and rain barrels. The rain barrels were installed next to the house to collect rainwater and prevent it from pooling around the base. The barrels come equipped with a hose that will allow Sinacori to water his yard with the collected rainwater. The team also caulked the base of the home and packed its perimeter with dirt at an angle so that when it does rain, water will run away from the house rather than into the basement.
Despite dealing with patchy rain showers, a broken wheelbarrow and an enormous pile of dirt, the team’s spirits remained high. They were in constant motion as they worked, sharing laughter and a clear sense of purpose.
“I’m definitely concerned about the climate, as climate change continues to happen and become more intense,” said team member Bailey Dozier-Shabazz. “I’m mindful of my own footprint and try to keep people aware of ways they can help with their footprint as well and reduce some of that damage.”
Through work like this, the Wayne State Climate R.E.A.D.Y. program connects Detroit residents with effective solutions to the climate-related health challenges they are facing today and creates a community that is better prepared for the future impacts of our changing climate.
At the end of the day, Sinacori praised the hardworking Climate R.E.A.D.Y. crew for their artistic and well-planned work and thanked them for helping him protect his home from future flooding.
When I asked Smith what was next for her team, she replied without hesitation.
“Pizza. It’s definitely time for some pizza!”
Other News from the CDC Foundation:
During the past year, and particularly this summer, we’ve seen extreme weather in communities across the nation. From a business perspective, these growing threats don’t just affect operations but also the health, safety and security of a business’ workers.
In an effort to help employers address the impact of a changing climate on worker health, well-being, and productivity, the CDC Foundation along with Mercer, a global consulting leader, this week announced an initiative to establish the National Commission on Climate and Workforce Health with the Health Action Alliance, the nation’s largest private sector network operating at the intersection of business and public health.