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State rejects request for Lake Michigan beach erosion emergency declaration

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The Indiana Department of Homeland Security is refusing to declare an emergency exists as a result of massive beach erosion along Lake Michigan caused by high water levels and powerful winter storms.

In a letter issued Wednesday, IDHS Executive Director Stephen Cox said the damage to public resources along the shoreline is insufficient to open the spigot of federal disaster funds that typically follows a state emergency declaration.

"To date, we are unaware of any loss of infrastructure (i.e. roads, bridges, public utilities, etc.) which would qualify for public assistance funding from federal or state disaster relief programs," Cox said.

Cox explained IDHS and several other state agencies are regularly monitoring beach erosion along the lake, in conjunction with local, state and federal elected officials as well as federal government agencies.

He said similar shoreline erosion issues are occurring in Michigan, and that state also has not issued a disaster declaration or sought assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We will remain in contact with local and federal officials and agencies about funding and resources available for preventative measures which may provide some short-term relief from the erosion, but also more permanent, long-term mitigation projects," Cox said.

State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, who along with state Rep. Pat Boy, D-Michigan City, asked Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb to declare a disaster in Porter and LaPorte counties, said the state's response is woefully inadequate.

She said while "public" infrastructure, such as the Portage lakefront pavilion, has not been lost to the lake — yet — there's an urgent need for state resources to prevent that from happening.

Tallian noted that support beams for porches at lake-adjacent homes in Long Beach already have collapsed, and lake water has seeped past barriers and exposed septic fields in the town, potentially resulting in sewage entering the lake.

In addition, Tallian said the town of Beverly Shores recently spent a "big pile of money" to prevent Lake Front Drive from being washed out, along with nearby water and gas lines.

"Surely we don't have to wait until the road is in the lake before we can ask for assistance," Tallian said.

Local emergencies due to beach erosion have been declared by officials in Porter County, Portage, Ogden Dunes and Beverly Shores.

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission reacted to the lakeshore situation Thursday by creating a committee to push state and federal authorities for a more helpful response. The commission, which serves as a Council of Governments with members from 46 Northwest Indiana units of government, will stress the urgency of the threat of rising lake levels, as well as the broader regional and national implications.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. suggested the regional action.

“In Hammond, there used to be one large beach. Last summer it turned into two beaches because the water was so high … and now we have no beach at all,” he said, noting the problem stretches around Lake Michigan.

“Why don’t we, as a body, put some pressure on the state?” he asked.

Beverly Shores Town Councilman Geof Benson characterized the state and federal response to the local request for assistance as, “It’s a local problem, fix it yourself.”

Other officials discussed the impact on inland communities. Chesterton Town Councilman Jim Ton noted his town’s dependence on the Indiana Dunes as an attraction for visitors.

“Our town is very directly affected commercially,” he said. “If that’s not an attraction," he said of the state and national parks, "we’ve got a lot of businesses that are going to suffer.”

NIRPC Chairman Michael Griffin, clerk-treasurer of Highland, will head the effort to draft a regional argument for emergency assistance.

“It would be remarkable to tell any community to bear that,” he said of beach erosion's impact. 

Gallery: Things you might not know about Porter County

— Times staff writer Andrew Steele contributed to this report.


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Related to this story

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission awarded its Norman Tufford Award “for exceptional dedication and service to NIRPC”  Thursday to  Geof Benson, a member of the Beverly Shores Town Council who has been a member of the commission since 2008.

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