As the Great Lakes continue to rise to record levels and the Indiana shoreline of Lake Michigan continues to erode and put at risk nearby homes, roads and infrastructure, Gov. Eric Holcomb on Thursday took official action that may be a catalyst for a future disaster declaration.
Holcomb signed an executive order mandating state agencies collect damage information and provide information regarding potential assistance. The order calls for the state Department of Homeland Security and Department of Natural Resources to notify his office whether damages meet criteria for a federal disaster declaration; to seek available funding for emergency assistance and long- and short-term erosion mitigation; and to launch a web page to share information an updates, among other things.
The order also calls on DNR to “continue to expedite its review and granting of governmental permits requested by property owners so they can initiate projects to protect their properties along the shoreline as quickly as possible.”
Holcomb’s office said in a press release that the governor “surveyed the Lake Michigan shoreline via Indiana State Police helicopter on Sunday and observed conditions along the entire shoreline including Beverly Shores, Ogden Dunes, Portage and Long Beach.
“Our administration has been monitoring the erosion along the Lake Michigan shoreline, but I wanted to see the damage firsthand,” Holcomb said. “I signed an executive order to initiate new action steps and further express our dedication to preserving one of our state’s crown jewels for all those who live, work and play along the shoreline.”
But state Sen. Karen Tallian and other Democratic lawmakers who represent the region issued statements criticizing Holcomb’s delay and calling for further action.
“It’s about time that the governor took this erosion problem seriously. After almost two months since I sent my original letter to the governor asking for an emergency declaration, his response is long overdue. I do thank the governor for finally getting involved, and I hope that an emergency declaration is issued as quickly as possible.”
“The erosion along the Lake Michigan shoreline cannot be stopped by the passage of legislation or endless months of debate,” said Rep. Pat Boy of Munster. “This is an issue that demands swift, hands-on action. That is why I sent a letter to the governor two months ago calling for him to issue a declaration of emergency for communities along the lakeshore in Porter and LaPorte counties. Due to record-high water levels and erosion, these communities have faced serious damage to key infrastructure, including things like water main lines and gas lines. The governor’s promise to do something is only good if he intends to act quickly before Hoosiers suffer any further damage.”
“I am happy that Governor Holcomb has taken action to address a very serious problem in northwest Indiana,” said Munster Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon. “I will remain in communication with the appropriate agencies to ensure that they work with local leaders to get all the pertinent information needed for the next steps. I remain committed to the protection of our lakefront.”
The lawmakers noted that governors in Illinois and Wisconsin had already declared states of emergency for communities along the lake in those state affected by rising water and erosion.
Northwest Indiana is home to about 45 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline in Lake, LaPorte and Porter counties. The region also is home to Indiana’s only national park, Indiana Dunes.
According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Michigan-Huron on Feb. 14 was more than 3 feet above its average depth for this time of year at 39 inches above the long-term monthly average. The lake depth was forecast to rise another inch in March.
The Corps’ most recent weekly Great Lakes Water Level Update on Feb. 14 said “forecasted water level on every lake, except Lake Ontario, is equal to or above the monthly average record high. … High water levels and potentially record high water levels are expected to persist for at least the next six months, so flood prone areas are expected to remain vulnerable.”
Holcomb said state officials have visited the affected areas on several occasions to observe the damage. “Relevant state leaders will continue to communicate and collaborate with local, state and federal partners,” the release said.
Erosion along the lakeshore comes as fights for public and private land rights along Lake Michigan continue to play out in the Indiana Statehouse and in federal court.