ST. JOSEPH — The Berrien County Board of Commissioners is asking Michigan’s governor to consider declaring the 3,288 miles of the state’s shoreline a disaster area, due to high water and erosion, and to seek federal aid to assist paying for damages.
Administrator Bill Wolf on Nov. 21 showed photographs of Dune Lane and Oak Lane in Lincoln Township, which have been closed because the bluff has been eaten away, threatening the roadway.
“One bad storm and the road could fail,” Road Department Director Jason Latham said. “We are at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
Similar emergencies are occurring throughout Southwest Michigan and the entire Great Lakes region, as water levels reach record heights and strong winds push waves into the shore.
It’s not just the roads, but underground sewer and water lines and even electrical cables that are in danger, Wolf said.
Along Dune Lane, part of a septic system has been exposed. Fortunately, the house to which it is attached is unoccupied. But a note from Nicki Britten, health officer of the County Health Department, pointed out that if the toilet were flushed, it would empty into the lake.
Wolf showed a map indicating that 50 percent of Berrien County’s shoreline is at high risk for erosion, and critical dunes are threatened.
The resolution, which passed unanimously, asks that the governor and Michigan Legislature “give favorable consideration to the declaration of the shoreline in the State of Michigan as a disaster area, and seek assistance from Congress and the President of the United States for this devastating situation, which has an impact statewide.”
The resolution states that the high water and waves are affecting property owners, businesses and the tourism industry, along with the tax base.
Commissioner Ezra Scott, who first brought up the subject of a disaster resolution last week and drafted the resolution, said when he graduated from high school in 1974, lakefront property in New Buffalo and the adjacent township went for $500 a foot. Now it’s worth $15,000 a foot, but 75 percent of it is underwater, he said, washing away property taxes.
During the Nov. 14 County Commission meeting Scott called for a national disaster declaration that would provide relief funds through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be issued for the shoreline of Michigan and other Great Lakes states that are being pounded by record-high water levels and punishing waves.
Earlier in that week, Scott spoke on the Michael Patrick Shiels’ radio program with U.S. Rep. Fred Upton about the crisis.
Recent storms eroded at least 15 feet of bluff in New Buffalo, Scott said, where homes and the city’s water plant are at risk. Similar effects are being felt in St. Joseph and all along the lakeshore.
Scott said he spoke with a Minnesota couple whose cabin along Lake Superior is in danger of falling into the water.
“This isn’t just a New Buffalo problem, it’s a Great Lakes problem,” he said.
During the interview, Upton said that the storms in November produced 25-foot waves, causing “catastrophic damage.” In his time living along the lake, he said he had never seen waves above 15 feet before this.
While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecast that lake levels would start to drop starting in August, they actually have gone up, Upton said. This summer Lake Michigan was near its record levels seen in 1986.
Experts speculate that the reason for the high water is a combination of increased precipitation and decreased evaporation during the winter, due to extreme cold temperatures and less open water.
Because of the high lake levels, there is no beach to buffer the waves hitting the bluffs, Scott said. He suggested that ships could be brought in to replenish the lost sand. He also said that lake levels could be lowered by adjusting the amount of water being channeled through the lake locks, although he said officials seem to be more concerned with the environmental impact than protecting property owners.
The request for a disaster declaration usually starts at the county level and then requires approval at the state and federal level, Upton spokesman Josh Paciorek said.
Upton said he would bring up the recommendation for a disaster declaration to his colleagues on the Great Lakes Caucus. He said he and other legislators have asked government agencies to speed up the permit process for shoreline protections.
Scott told his fellow commissioners that the Stafford Act provides financial and physical assistance through a presidential disaster declaration, but most people don’t read past the provision that calls for a 25 percent match of local funding.
The act, Scott pointed out, allows a disaster declaration for “storms, high water and wind-driven water,” the kind of conditions being experienced here. Aid can be provided to individuals and to save public infrastructure, he said.
Lakefront residents in Southwest Michigan are scrambling to put up metal and stone barriers to protect their property against erosion. Putting up a rock wall can cost as much as $50,000. St. Joseph residents have been given permission to put up temporary barriers on city property, but some have balked at the conditions required, such as the provision requiring removal unless a permanent solution is in place.
Scott is visiting Washington, D.C., with members of the New Buffalo Shoreline Alliance in early December.