Winter may be ‘worst natural disaster’ in years

The current freeze emergency is potentially the worst natural disaster to strike the Upper Peninsula in living memory. Unseen underground, the impacts of this disaster only become clear after the damage has been done, and include disruption of water and sewer systems, as well as residential and commercial natural gas networks and other underground utilities.

The result is very real public health concerns, resulting from possible contamination of public water supplies and pollution of groundwater, as well as property losses due to the inevitable consequences of the spring thaw.

The economic costs for government facilities and assets alone are already overwhelming many small hard-strapped communities, not to mention the losses endured by home and business owners, and all residents of the community.

Throughout this winter, the public has been bombarded with daily images of the nearly frozen over Great Lakes, and especially Lake Superior. The real news, however, is that for all the frozen water on the lakes, there is a far more extensive supply hidden frozen underground – and the impact will become clear as the frost heave tears apart our buried water and sewer infrastructure. In some instances, the freeze was over 10 feet deep, far beyond the level that normal monitoring systems can measure.

In a way, this is like a tsunami. The first “wave” of the disaster was the repeated hammering of bitter-cold polar vortexes creating the freeze destruction. The inevitable “second wave” – the really big one – is just now crashing toward shore. Just as the freeze cycle pushed the ground up, the thaw cycle will create cavities and shifts underground; buried systems will be torn asunder and water and sewer mains will rupture. Even as the beguiling spring temperatures lull people into thinking the worst is over, there remains a significant potential the worst is yet to come.

This is not only a problem for the city of Marquette; this winter has caused havoc across the U.P. The Mining Journal last week reported that as many as 50 percent of the fire hydrants in the city of Ishpeming may be frozen. As that vignette – and countless others like it – makes clear, this is a matter not just of budgets, but of public safety.

And the potential for contaminated water systems is especially dangerous. Every time a main breaks and is repaired – this has happened in the city at least 10 times this year – the potential for the introduction of pathogens is real. Providing water by fire hose or garden hose only ratchets up those odds.

When discussing disastrous U.P. winters, officials often cite stories from the winter of 1993-1994, when an estimated 800 City water service lines needed thawing. In the decades that followed, communities invested millions in infrastructure upgrades and buried critical water and sewer lines deeper underground. City staff also developed best practices and preventive measures, including anticipatory modeling allowing the city to predict where and when freeze-up issues will likely occur. Residents in at-risk locations are now asked run their water to prevent freezing issues. But this winter has been brutal.

In addition to the main breaks, the city has responded to nearly 600 residential water service line freeze-ups this year, spending in excess of $605,000 more than four times the budgeted amount for repairing and replacing mains and laterals. At last count, 1,783 residents were on let-runs, as were 30 businesses. Those let-runs have meant wasting more than 48 million gallons of water, resulting in lost city revenues – from pumping and treatment – of $664,000.

Our heroes are the public works crews, which in some cases are literally in the trenches repairing lines in a desperate effort to keep citizens supplied. Round-the-clock work is common. Managers and supervisors have been very active in supporting their crews and are working diligently to bring the full scope of this disaster to the attention of folks downstate.

Our U.P. legislators did a fine job of assessing the problem personally and of attempting to call the governor’s attention to the present and coming disasters, but to little avail. Right now, it is almost golfing season for those beneath the bridge, so the very idea of an Upper Peninsula freeze disaster is far off their radar.

But the second wave is coming. It’s unseen by most, but it’s rolling into a hard landfall, carrying with it the certain seeds of disaster. We need a formal declaration of a state of emergency from the governor now, in order to help pave the way for recovery support later.

Editor’s note: Fred Stonehouse is a member of the Marquette City Commission.