Berrien commissioner wants a Great Lakes disaster declaration

Storms and high water levels have caused extensive erosion along the Lake Michigan shoreline, including this stretch at the southern end of Silver Beach near the Lake Street and Park Street intersection in St. Joseph.

ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County Commissioner Ezra Scott, of New Buffalo, wants to see a national disaster declaration issued for the shoreline of Michigan and other Great Lakes states that are being pounded by record-high water levels and punishing waves.

Scott told the board of commissioners Thursday that he planned to bring forward a resolution in a couple of weeks asking Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and President Donald Trump to approve the designation that would provide relief funds through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Earlier in the 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,” Scott said.

During the interview, Upton said that the storms this month 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 told The Herald-Palladium.

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 plans to be in Washington, D.C., with members of the New Buffalo Shoreline Alliance next month to meet with government officials to make their case.

“We have to do something, We have to,” Scott said during the radio interview.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak