CRYSTAL FALLS— By their natures, catastrophic disasters make for vivid pictures. The suffering of those unfortunate to be caught in dire situations like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy or the Washington mudslides is obvious.
The type of emergency that cities, towns and townships across the Upper Peninsula have experienced during the brutal winter of 2014 is not. Frozen water lines, water main breaks and heaving roads just don’t capture the camera lens the same way.
Therein lies the problem for Iron County municipalities that want and need assistance to contend with the monetary hit their budgets have taken this winter.
In a special meeting held March 25, the County Board of Commissioners declared a local state of emergency due to damage done to water lines and other infrastructure during the harsh winter.
The costs of thawing frozen water and sewer lines, excess electricity to keep water pumping during “let-run” orders and other expenditures are of great concern to local communities.
In Iron River alone, the costs for dealing with these problems as of late March had risen to between $57,000 and $67,000, according to city manager Perry Franzoi.
A local declaration of emergency is one of the initial steps in obtaining help from higher levels of government, according to county Emergency Coordinator Vernon Jones.
“Quite honestly, it doesn’t mean a whole lot other than there’s a process that’s set out by statute that you have to follow,” Jones explained.
“A local declaration is followed by a governor’s declaration. Then ultimately if the (cost) threshold is met, then the governor could then ask for a presidential declaration.
“Basically, this puts (the state government) on notice.”
Iron County Board Chairman Jim Brennan said it was important to get the county in line in case help from Lansing is available.
“There’s plenty of damage that’s been done (here), but whether we’ll really get any money or not, it’s a long shot,” Brennan said during the board’s regular meeting April 8.
“There might be some money from the state or from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). If we’re not in line and we didn’t have it declared, we might get nothing.”
Damages must reach $13.7 million for Michigan to declare a state of emergency, which then qualifies the state for federal help. As of late last week, the damages were about $6.2 million. Where that number ends up is uncertain, as costs continue to add up.
While freeze-ups have generally decreased in the county, no one knows for sure what other costs will come from water-line breaks, road damages and other such costs that will arise as the frost leaves the ground.
Marquette County first requested Gov. Rick Snyder to declare a state emergency on March 4, but the request was denied at that time. In his decision, the governor directed the state’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division of the Michigan State Police to offer assistance.
Marquette County is expected to ask the governor to reconsider that initial rejection. After Marquette County was denied, Jones felt a similar attempt by Iron County would likely suffer the same fate.
Now, the county has joined five other U.P. counties in declaring local states of emergency.
“It’s kind of complicated,” Jones said, “but the Reader’s Digest version is this: When something catastrophic happens to a community or an area and they are just overwhelmed, that’s what emergency management is predicated upon.
“So if we tried to go with a governor’s declaration, they would say, ‘Well, what do you need? Do you need bulldozers and trucks, do you have people in shelters, do you have people not living in homes, homeless people that need to be fed?’
“What (local municipalities) really need is money. And the last thing in the world emergency management is going to give us is dollars.”
Upper Peninsula legislators, Sen. Tom Casperson and Reps. Scott Dianda, John Kivela and Ed McBroom, held a press conference on March 17 to address the winter crisis, and a U.P. delegation testified before a state Senate Transportation Committee on March 25, asking for immediate assistance.
“The Legislature could do an appropriation,” Jones said. “They could do a Bad Winter of 2014 Act and appropriate some money and then come up with a distribution process.
“Whether help comes from the emergency management or a special appropriation, who knows?”