Winter disaster update

ISHPEMING – Several Upper Peninsula legislators met with local city and county representatives at Ishpeming City Hall Monday morning to hear details and gather information about severe infrastructure and potential health and safety problems facing cities due to this winter’s extreme cold weather.

State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, and state reps. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, John Kivela, D-Marquette, and Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, heard matter-of-fact statements about the dire situation cities in Marquette County and throughout the U.P. are facing.

Officials from the county – as well as those in Ishpeming, Negaunee and Republic – hope that the legislators can convey the reality and urgency of an emergency situation that they said is not understood by Lansing lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder.

Monday’s meeting came on the heels of a recent decision by Snyder not to declare a state of emergency for Marquette County, instead directing the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division of the Michigan State Police to offer assistance – a move which all at Monday’s meeting agreed was woefully inadequate.

Dozens of frozen and broken city water mains caused by record-breaking cold temperatures have forced municipalities to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars over their budgets just to maintain a basic safe level of services.

In addition, water treatment facilities are nearing their capacity as more and more customers are placed on let-runs. And beleaguered department of public works employees, often working 12- to 15-hour days, have thawed hundreds of water mains and laterals this winter.

The city of Ishpeming, for example, has so far dealt with 13 water main breaks and city officials warned the legislators that the problems will only get worse as spring arrives, temperatures warm and the pipes and mains in the ground shift.

“Obviously they don’t get it. The fact that in their letter of denial, they mention that the majority of these issues are residential problems because they’re residential service lines,” Kivela said. “OK, where do those typically freeze? In the right-of-way, where the streets are plowed. That belongs to the municipalities. So there’s several troubling parts to this, and again, we’re here to bring awareness to it, to listen to you, and hopefully go back to Lansing and get some results.”

One thing everyone in the room agreed on was that Lansing did not understand the full scope of the problem – not for malice or negligence, but a lack of personal experience and knowledge of the real issues.

“It’s a different situation that the Lower Peninsula doesn’t understand,” Negaunee City Manager Jeff Thornton said. “When the snow budgets hit with the road commissions downstate: ‘Oh, we’re out of budget for salt, we’re out of budget for diesel fuel, we’re just going to stop doing it or reduce it.’ We can’t do that. We’re robbing Peter and Tom and everybody to pay Paul. And that’s where we’re at right now. We’re in survival mode.”

McBroom said it’s just a matter of lack of information and understanding of the severity of the problem.

“How many times up here in the Upper Peninsula have we struggled with overburdening our road budgets for the winter?” he asked. “And yet, nobody downstate seemed to pay any attention. Well this year, they got whacked by winter, so suddenly, getting the supplemental (bill) through for extra winter road funding wasn’t really a big deal this year, because instead of the Yoopers begging for it the downstaters were demanding it for themselves.”

Ishpeming DPW Superintendent Jon Kangas gave a short presentation to the lawmakers about the situation and estimated that Ishpeming, in trying to keep up with this winter’s myriad problems, has already spent nearly $300,000 that wasn’t budgeted, and conservatively estimates another $500,000 to replace 1,800 feet of water main he believes to be already broken, but frozen solid.

“We feel we have a genuine human crisis,” he said. “I think everyone in the room is on the same page there; we need to connect with the people in Lansing on that. We’ve had 1,000 plus people without water for an average of five days, $300,000 in unbudgeted money spent to date, and I would say that’s (from) about two weeks ago.”

Negaunee is in a similar predicament, currently about $130,000 overbudget, and Republic – which only has 300 water customers – estimates it will cost nearly $100,000 extra to deal with its winter problems. Before coming to Ishpeming, the legislators stopped in Republic to see an open pit cut into Marquette County Road 601, with a cut-open water main being thawed by a steamer.

“When we have a 78-year-old woman in Republic, Michigan, that has to go away from her home to use a shelter to get her water and take a shower, I think that is an emergency,” Dianda said. “So we definitely would like to see some action by the governor beyond the state police.”

Supervisor Gary Johnson said in an email: “We were totally surprised to see the support of the representatives, and very grateful that they felt strongly enough to brave the elements to get a firsthand glimpse of what the smaller units are also going through.

“A really scary thought? From now until the middle of April will be the worst. The frost will still continue to go down, even after the weather starts to warm up.”

Casperson said the presentation given by Kangas and the stories he and the other U.P. reps had heard were extremely compelling, and said one strategy they might consider to get Snyder to rethink an emergency declaration is to have Kangas, Marquette County Commissioner Gerry Corkin and any others who are able make the trip to Lansing to give their presentations and impassioned arguments for assistance to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes, which Casperson chairs.

By doing so, Casperson said they can get coverage for the issues in downstate media and hopefully use the committee as a vehicle for bringing about the awareness needed to get assistance.

In addition to financial assistance, an emergency declaration from Snyder would allow Ishpeming, Negaunee and other Marquette County municipalities to use the National Guard – which has the welders used for thawing lines and the manpower to run them.

“A declaration of emergency does a handful of things. It’s not just a state writing a check,” Kivela said. “It’s, like Tom (Casperson) mentioned and Scott (Dianda) mentioned, leveraging assets that the National Guard has. You know, there’s a ton of these welders sitting on trailers all around the state that could help.”

But the consensus was that the worst might yet be coming, and being proactive is essential.

“This is becoming a greater problem I think than most could ever imagine,” Casperson said. “Instead of us reacting when it really hits hard and we really have a major problem on our hands, an emergency, let’s try to get proactive, get ahead of it as much as we can.”

The legislators said they will all do everything they can to help Marquette County and the Upper Peninsula as a whole, and also urged city and county officials and the public to flood Snyder’s office with phone calls about the problems.

Callers can reach Snyder’s executive office at 517-373-3400.