County declares Local State of Emergency, activates Emergency Operations Center to coordinate
responses to widespread flooding
By Annette Christie
Rising temperatures, heavy continuous rain, and melting snow led to widespread flooding which began last week, and has resulted in Berrien County officials declaring a Local State of Emergency.
Berrien County began daily briefings in their Emergency Operations Center last Wednesday, February 21 after flooding began to create a problem.
On Friday, February 23, the Berrien County Board of Commissioners declared a Local State of Emergency due to the flooding that affected numerous communities in the county.
WATER WATER EVERYWHERE… caused Hartford Public Schools to shut down for two days as bus routes were inaccessible once the Paw Paw River jumped it banks in the overnight hours of Wednesday, February 21. Pinery Road/65-1/2 Street (upper left) was awash with moving white-water as was 59-1/2 Street (lower left.) The deepest water hazard, well over two feet deep, arose on County Road 372/52nd Avenue (upper right) near a lift station for the area Waste Water Treatment Plant. The plant remained completely operational despite the rising tide. The truck in the photo did not enter the floodwater. The photo in the lower right is of a car stalled in water over 70th Street/County Line Road, the driver awaiting a “water rescue.” Not one single member of the community polled by the Tri-City Record can ever recall such flooding as is evident across a majority of Berrien and Van Buren counties. (TCR photos by Jon Bisnett)
This declaration is a formality that allows the local municipalities to utilize county resources in their recovery and damage assessments as a result of the natural disaster.
The Local State of Emergency will be forward to the State of Michigan in an attempt to make state resources available to the County of Berrien and the local communities that are being affected by the flooding and the damage caused by this natural disaster.
As the recovery efforts and assessments of the damage caused continues, the strain on the resources and manpower of the County of Berrien and the local communities are being exhausted, the support of the State of Michigan will be a welcome relief to all communities.
The County of Berrien is extremely proud of the efforts being put forth by all the local municipalities, their employees, and the various civic organizations over the past couple of days.
Berrien County Commissioner Dave Vollrath, who represents the areas of Coloma and Watervliet is appointed to the Local Emergency Planning Committee and has been very active in that role since the Berrien County Emergency Operations Center activation. While the major areas of damage seem to be in the central and southern areas of the county, Vollrath said he was aware of some damage in the Coloma/ Watervliet area. “Go to the website and report it,” was the most important message Vollrath has for this area. With the Local State of Emergency, residents and businesses can report their damage to be considered for additional resources from the state and maybe even federal government. That reporting can be done at www.berriencounty.org or www.bcsheriff.org.
Vollrath said he has a new understanding of all the areas that are affected by a disaster such as this. “There is a great collaboration between all the agencies involved,” Vollrath said. He had nothing but praise for the Berrien County employees that have been involved in the emergency since day one.
FLOODED PARK… Hays Park in Watervliet is pictured nearly entirely flooded as water of the Paw Paw River overflowed its banks last week following runoff from heavy rains and melting snow. By Thursday the park was closed to traffic and the water covered the ball fields and the basketball court. The water was deep enough to nearly cover the ramps in the skate park. On the opposite bank the water nearly reached the Paper Mill Monument on M-140. (Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Drone Company)
As the record setting levels of the St. Joseph River have crested, it appears stable. Berrien County will continue to monitor river levels, the water levels over various stretches of roadways, and the infrastructures in the County of Berrien and the local communities.
Multiple roads were underwater, washed away or were generally impassable as the Berrien County Road Department went to work identifying and closing those roads.
As of February 27, many low-lying roads in Berrien County were still under water. Some of the roads were still closed including: County Line Road from Red Arrow Hwy. to Dwight Boyer Road; County Line Road from Meadowbrook Road to Black Lake Road; and County Line Road from Black Lake Road to Columbia Ave. Additional road closures were in New Buffalo, Three Oaks, Galien, Buchanan, Niles, Berrien, Oronoko, Lake, and Royalton townships. Updates on roads as they open will be posted on the Berrien County Road Department page on the Berrien County website: www.berriencounty.org.
PADDLERS appear to enjoy the high water in Hays Park, here they are floating near the skatepark and basketball court. (TCR photo by Carol Coffin)
While roadways may not have standing water across the road, barricades may still remain on the scene. The road may still need to be inspected by the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Berrien County Road Department, or the local public works departments to ensure the road is structurally sound. Additionally, citizens should continue to follow all warnings about water on roadways. Do not drive vehicles or heavy equipment through water and do not drive around or move barricades blocking roadways. Flooding can weaken roads or cause them to wash out entirely, making driving through flooded areas dangerous.
The Berrien County Health Department advised residents with well water systems to inspect the area around their wells for flooding. If flood waters impacted the well system, they stated that drinking water could have been contaminated. If the well head was damaged, compromised, or had been submerged in flood water, residents were to immediately discontinue use of the well water for drinking, cooking, and/or bathing and should use bottled water until their well system is safe for use again. The Berrien County Health Department can assist residents to test their well water system for safety. There is an abundance of information available on mold, flood cleanup, hazards, etc. on the Berrien County Health Department Website at www.bchdmi.org. Those interested should look for the Civic Alerts section.
Berrien County Animal Control has assisted with collecting household pets from assorted areas that were evacuated due to the flooding. For any individuals looking for their pets, they should contact Berrien County Animal Control at (269) 927-5648 during normal business hours from 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. After hours, a citizen may call the non-emergency dispatch number at 269-983-7141 to establish a contact with the Animal Control Department.
TWISTED… The canoe launch in Hays Park was lifted nearly to the top of its mooring poles by the flood last weekend, but was held fast by cables strung to nearby trees. It appears the launch may have been twisted by the strong river current and the high water. (TCR photo by Karl Bayer)
A shelter was set up at the Berrien Springs Middle School, 1 Sylvester Ave., Berrien Springs, for those that were evacuated and were in need of shelter. Additional individuals needing assistance from the Red Cross can reach them at (269) 556-9619.
Disaster Relief Fund
To help address the needs of the residents affected by flooding, United Way of Southwest Michigan and the Berrien Community Foundation have partnered to establish a Disaster Relief Fund to help with the recovery needs of the families impacted. They announced that 100% of all the funds would go directly to disaster relief assistance through the American Red Cross of Southwest Michigan.
As of February 27, more than $20,000 has been collected for the Disaster Relief Fund. “The American Red Cross of Southwest Michigan, United Way of Southwest Michigan, and the Berrien Community Foundation thank the community for their generous support. The work that has happened in a short amount of time has been incredible,” said Murphy.
Though the work thus far is great, the Red Cross, United Way, and Neighbor to Neighbor ask that physical items, such as clothing or toiletries, should not be dropped off or offered until proper disaster assessment can be conducted, thus informing what supplies and items are needed.
For more information on the Disaster Relief Fund see article in Letters and Commentary on Page 5.
Health and well-being
All residents affected by the flooding should pay attention to their mental behavioral health needs as the water recedes and the recovery process begins. Disasters take an enormous toll on all people involved. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services encourages residents to seek emotional support as needed.
Recovery following a flood can be a difficult process. During the period of transition, it is important for those affected to eat and sleep well, seek medical attention if necessary, stay connected with family and friends, and establish priorities and goals.
While people tend to think about how emergencies such as the recent flooding can affect people’s physical health and safety, they also need to think about the potential impact on their mental health. The County of Berrien, through partnerships with local communities, has resources available to residents who need help dealing with the emotional effects of the flooding.
Common reactions to traumatic events include: difficulty making decisions or focusing, feeling depressed, changes in appetite or sleeping patterns, feeling mentally and physically drained and becoming easily frustrated. If anyone is experiencing any of those symptoms they should be addressed with a licensed mental health professional. For information regarding mental health resources visit the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services website or visit disasterdistress.samhsa.gov.
Michigan 2-1-1 connects individuals with information and resources to build healthy and safe communities. Up to date flood resources can be located by dialing 2-1-1. Berrien County Chief Deputy Robert Boyce states, “Additional resources to help individuals and their families recover from the flooding can be found by calling 2-1-1.”
2-1-1 is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The service has translation services for over 180 languages. They can be reached via landline, cell or VOIP.
Berrien County officials continue to work closely with local emergency personnel to evaluate the aftermath of the widespread flooding in Berrien County. Impacted citizens and business owners are encouraged to report personal property damage using the phone numbers listed below: 1-800-815-5485. To simplify the process of reporting damage caused by this disaster, complete the damage reporting form found on the Berrien County Website: www.berriencounty.org or Berrien County Sheriff’s Website: www.bcsheriff.org.
Local partners are collecting and compiling crucial information as establishing a localized damage assessment is the first step for any potential assistance after a disaster. Residents can assist with insurance claims by taking an inventory of valuables and belongings, including taking photos or video. Vehicle owners should report any damages to their auto insurance company.
The record flooding that struck the area has disrupted the lives of many residents. Power to a number of homes, businesses and neighborhoods had to be disconnected to protect the safety of those residents.
As floodwaters recede and residents return to their homes, the restoration effort for many will include re-connecting the power. In order to continue that safely, the building/ structure will have to be inspected to certify the power is safe to reconnect. Local codes and electrical standards require power companies to inspect a premise before power can be restored. Inquiries can be made by contacting I&M Electric at 1-800-311-4634.
Gas services may also need to be reconnected. The contact numbers for the gas providers are as follows: Michigan Gas Utilities 1-800-401-6402; SEMCO 1-800-624-2019; Amerigas (Propane) 1-800-427-4968. If the natural gas provider for the residence or business is different from the above mentioned companies, please contact that company.
Residents are reminded to continue using extreme caution dealing with electrical matters. Never touch a fallen power line and always call the utility company to report fallen power lines. If electrical circuits and equipment have gotten wet or are in or near water, turn off the power at the main breaker or fuse on the service panel. Do not turn the power back on until electrical equipment has been inspected by a qualified electrician.
Consumers tackling restoration of their homes damaged are urged to first check online to verify the individuals and businesses they hire are legitimate. An online search can be done at http://www.michigan.gov/licenselookup or by calling LARA’s Bureau of Professional Licenses at 517-373-8068. To search for electricians, plumbers, and mechanical contractors, search www.michigan.gov/bcclicense or call 517-241-9316.
Consumers are reminded to ask the individual for his/her pocket card which will contain the license number; ask for and verify references; get at least three written estimates to include detailed job specifications on the materials, labor, timeline, and total charges for the work; obtain a detailed written contract stating exactly what work will be done, the quality of the materials used, warranties, start and completion dates, total cost of the job, and a payment schedule; never sign a contract with blank spaces; ask the contractor, sub-contractor, and suppliers for a completed and signed “waiver of lien” form; keep good records; avoid paying for the entire job up front; check with the property insurance provider for coverage; and don’t forget the permit, if needed, by checking with the local building department.
Coloma Township Police activity
Coloma Township Police officers were dispatched to a residence in the 5000 block of Riverview Dr. on February 26 at 9:09 p.m. for a domestic violence issue that had just occurred. While en route, the officers were advised that the suspect may be armed.
Upon arrival officers made contact with the suspect who was found to be in possession of a .40 caliber handgun. Officers secured the weapon without incident. After investigating the incident, the suspect, a 39-year-old Coloma man, was arrested for Domestic Violence and Possession of a Firearm while Intoxicated. He was subsequently lodged at the Berrien County Jail.
While patrolling at approximately 2:10 p.m. on February 26, an officer with the Coloma Township Police Department observed a vehicle with a possibly expired registration plate.
After the officer turned around to follow the vehicle it accelerated to approximately 50 mile-per-hour in the posted 25 mile-per-hour zone. The officer activated his emergency lights and siren and the suspect vehicle continued to flee. The suspect vehicle turned into a parking lot at the corner of N. West St. and Logan St.
The driver, a 50-year-old Bangor man, was arrested without incident. He was lodged in the Berrien County Jail on charges of fleeing and eluding, 3rd Degree and driving with a suspended license.
A Coloma Township Police Officer stopped a vehicle for speeding near the intersection of W. St Joseph St. and Coloma at approximately 8:30 p.m. on February 21, 2018. The officer made contact with the driver, a 24-year-old Benton Harbor man. The driver was subsequently issued a misdemeanor appearance citation for driving with a suspended license. He was cited and released.
Paw Paw River search for missing kayaker
Berrien County Public Safety Communication Center received a 911 call at 7:44 p.m. on February 27, 2018 regarding a missing kayaker in the Paw Paw River. Emergency responders were directed to the Paw Paw River in Watervliet Township.
Three individuals were kayaking on the Paw Paw River near 4265 R. Smith Street in Watervliet when two of the kayaks struck a log in the river. One individual swam to shore and the second individual is currently missing. The missing individual is a 35-year-old male from Niles.
The Berrien County Sheriff’s Office Dive Team is currently on scene conducting a search. An incident command center has been opened near the scene.
No other information was available at press time.
Rain a pain for Hartford Schools, flooding closes school for 2 days
By Jon Bisnett
Superintendent Andy Hubbard said, “Marc and I had it all figured out… we really did… rerouting buses around standing water over roads in the District, and then the river went over its bank and we were all done!”
Working with District Transportation Supervisor Marc Clauser, Hubbard thought they had a plan but that plan turned out to be “all wet” literally. “It’s one thing to run a school bus through an inch of standing water, but when Marc called me at 4:00 a.m. Wednesday morning it was only too clear that the Paw Paw River had gotten the best of us,” said Hubbard at the school board meeting on February 22.
Hartford closed schools on both Wednesday and Thursday due to water actively flowing over roads at multiple locations along the student bus routes.
Business Manager Rebecca Drake presented routine expenses for approval. Hubbard added that the District was still withholding final bond construction payments from flooring and electrical contractors over issues still being resolved. Drainage and other water issues exposed by the recent extreme weather prompted meetings with both the architects and construction managers to reach a solution.
Board Vice President Mike Banic was on the gavel for the evening as President Chambers was out of the country, and commented, “I’ve had the opportunity to work very closely with Andy this week with a wide variety of challenges and must say I’m impressed with the job he has done, especially standing firm in talks with the construction people as to what we expect to be fixed as their responsibility at no cost to us.”
Three staff retirements and one resignation were announced by Hubbard. Nancy (Williams) Spoula will retire after 32 years of wearing multiple hats from teacher to Title I Administrator, Principal, Civil Rights Coordinator just to name a few. She will be missed and Hubbard hopes that she may return in a part-time capacity following a well-earned rest.
Gayle Knight will retire after 30 years of service mostly in the High School Special Education Department. As an alumnus she also has supervised the yearbook for many years. Knight leaves extra big shoes to fill as a fundraising champion of many extra-curricular groups along with the void in her classroom and the journalism team.
Mary Dorroh will call an end to her 29 years of service as teacher at Redwood Elementary and Steve Sells resigned his position in maintenance following 22 years at the post.
On behalf of the District Superintendent Hubbard wished all the departing staff a most sincere thanks and best wishes for their future plans.
Superintendent Andy Hubbard presented the 2nd reading of Board Policy #0151 and 0152 which when approved will remove a chronological conflict in the current policy and will synchronize board trustee term of office with that of the elected officers.
Senior Class Advisor Araya Stillson secured final approval from the board for the annual Senior Class Trip. Students will travel to the Tampa Bay area of Florida from April 30 to May 3. Events include a day at Busch Gardens and a sunset dinner cruise on Tampa Bay. Stillson has coordinated with Athletic Director Nick Blackmer who tuned the spring sports scheduling agreeable to all concerned during the seniors’ time away. Fifty of the 63 seniors are participating this year at a total per person cost of $900.
Superintendent Andy Hubbard suggested the board move the April 19 meeting to the 26th to avoid conflict with the annual Legislative Dinner. Following the approval V.P. Banic expressed his hopes that the board would embrace the legislative event and be present with a large group, rather than consider it a night off.
V.P. Banic reminded the board to contribute ideas for discussion at the upcoming retreat. He indicated that school safety would definitely be on the list in light of recent events, but encouraged any and all topics to be considered.
Middle School update
Middle School Principal Ken Mohney gave a comprehensive report on his building highlighting Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, Cross Curriculum Instruction, Extended Learning Opportunities, Project Lead the Way and Positive Behavior Intervention Systems.
Mohney also was pleased to announce that the Middle School Robotics Team was coming back under the supervision of Secretary Marilyn Mead and her husband who have a passion for the skill.
Hubbard added that bus transportation may soon be available for students taking the ELO after school program.
Andy Hubbard spent his entire report segment addressing and clarifying what steps the school has taken during the unprecedented area flooding.
During the recent melt a few drip-type leaks became evident at the High School and Middle School. They are under warranty and were turned over to the roofing contractor for repairs at no cost to the district.
The idle Red Arrow Building demonstrated the same leaks that were evident when the building was shut down months ago. Hubbard is bringing in Division 7 who has affected leak repair in the past for the purpose of maintaining the integrity of the building while efforts are still in the works to leverage the Vanderlynn donation commitment to move the Hartford Library to the site. Hubbard made it clear that maintenance personnel still check Red Arrow on a regular basis with the concern to preserve the integrity of the building even in its idled state.
The main parking lot at Redwood Elementary suffered the same flooding issues in the southeast corner as it did after an extreme rain earlier in the school year, only worse at this time due to frozen ground, rain and combined snow melt. As in the prior instance the Hartford Fire Department aided by pumping off the groundwater into the woods owned by the school to the immediate west of the lot. Architects are aware of the issue and are working to determine if excavators graded to the proper specification during the original construction. The addition of a retention basin for runoff located at the southeast perimeter of the lot may be a course of action as well. Hubbard was candid in explaining that there may be some expense on the part of the school once the proper fix is determined.
Superintendent Hubbard reported he has been in contact with the schools’ legal team to review construction contracts and has been hard-nosed with construction firms in demanding a permanent solution to the unresolved issues as soon as weather permits; the cost of which falling where it is accountable.
“The rumor mill went wild with reports of flooding of the new gym floor at Redwood…” commented Hubbard.
“Contrary to anything you may have heard, the vinyl over concrete floor did flood on Monday. Marc Clauser and the maintenance staff worked all night to dry the floor. We opened for breakfast 15 minutes late on Tuesday morning, and we’ve kept it dry as a bone ever since,” says Hubbard. Contact has already been made with the flooring manufacturer and the adhesive as to nay possible mold concerns. “Had it been a wood floor, we would have been in trouble…” said Hubbard.
Hubbard went into great detail to inform the board that the “leak” was actually coming in from ground level. A roof drain tube that runs down inside the wall appears to be the culprit. The drain feeds into a larger 6-inch line under the building and appears to have been plugged and back-flowed onto the gym floor. After isolating the source maintenance staff stood by to vacuum any additional flow before it spread to the floor.
Hubbard said he had hoped to have Marc Clauser attend the meeting to answer any additional questions, but after the hours he put in the week, “I sent him home to get some sleep.” He literally spent the night monitoring the Redwood situation. The architects have brought in a firm that did a video inspection of the drain. No flaws were located. The camera system was short four feet of traversing the final bend and connection, but showed a clear path to the larger line which was full of water. Hubbard says all initial indications would point to the architect’s responsibility to correct this issue, not the school. Hubbard also will pursue reimbursement for all the staff hours expended to get the floor ready for students.
In conclusion Hubbard reiterated that the decision to close school on Wednesday and Thursday had absolutely nothing to do with the gym floor, rather the inability to run busses through highly affected roadways.
“Our biggest fear was that rapidly flowing water is what causes pavement to break up and erode. We could not in good conscience put our students, drivers and equipment at risk on Thursday.
“Water over the road or not for Friday school will run,” Hubbard explained. He and Clauser had determined some 18 households that were still unreachable with the latest reroute plan. Clauser personally called each of those families with the simple message that “due to conditions we can’t come pick up your kids or drop them off. If you can get them to school great, otherwise we will provide an excused absence.”
V.P. Banic led the entire board with their thanks, calling out Superintendent Hubbard, Marc Clauser and all the staff along with Hartford Fire and also the parents for their understanding during a trying time and most unprecedented set of really difficult circumstances.
It was announced, the Hartford Public Schools Foundation for Quality Education Annual Auction is scheduled for March 24 at West Street Station in downtown Coloma. Tickets are available at City Hall and Central Office.
A media inquiry prompted V.P. Banic for comment on his involvement with the recent District-wide Lock-Down Drill that took place just a day after the Parkland Florida tragedy. Banic said, “I thought it went real well… both students and staff seemed to take it seriously and follow the plan.” Trustee Rick Vawter who also audited the drills added similar positive comments mentioning only a minor hiccup at the new Redwood building that has been addressed since.
Student Representative Olivia Ziemer announced a 3rd place finish by the High School Cheer Team earning them a slot at Regional competition at Caledonia High School. Principal Dave Janicki is making good on his promise/challenge by buying all the team dinner following their qualification for Regionals.
Having no further business Vice President Banic adjourned the meeting at 8:14 p.m. The trustees meet next for Board Retreat at 6:00 p.m. on March 8.