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View from around the state: Federal aid is needed for Lake Michigan bluffs

When we talk about “federal assistance” for disaster relief, we obviously mean money and personnel subsidized by federal taxpayers. That includes those of us living here in Wisconsin. We didn’t personally deliver the federal aid in times of need. But indirectly, through the taxes we pay, we did.

We haven’t had a full-fledged disaster here along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Racine County. But in the erosion of the bluffs along the lakeshore in Mount Pleasant and Caledonia, we do have a crisis which requires federal assistance. Put simply, it’s our turn to be helped by the federal government.

Late last month, Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave issued a declaration of emergency due to the erosion. Such a declaration better positions the county to get state and federal assistance and gives the county authority to make personnel and resources available, according to a news release.

The declaration also allows the county to close public streets and, if necessary, evacuate residents from their homes, Delagrave said.

High Lake Michigan levels have eroded the bluffs, putting homes in Mount Pleasant and Caledonia in danger. One home has already been removed and officials say 10 to 12 other homes in Mount Pleasant and multiple properties in Caledonia are threatened.

In addition to homes, officials are worried about public utilities and streets, Delagrave said, and fear a strong storm could move through and erode more of the bluffs. “We don’t want homeowners to lose their houses unnecessarily and we’re also concerned about erosion encroaching on public utilities,” Delagrave said.

State Rep. Peter Barca, a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency National Advisory Council, said he has also contacted federal and state entities and hopes for a quick solution.

“There are people in Wisconsin right now who could wake up tomorrow without a home. We need to take action as quickly as possible,” said Barca, D-Kenosha, whose district includes the Lake Park neighborhood of Mount Pleasant. “For the people of Mount Pleasant, time is of the essence.”

This is most definitely true, in Mount Pleasant and in Caledonia.

During Tuesday night’s meeting at the Mount Pleasant Village Hall, several residents called for the state and Gov. Scott Walker to get more involved. Walker has not issued an executive order regarding the erosion, but has directed staff to provide support in the area, said Pat O’Connor, director of the Bureau of Response and Recovery for Wisconsin Emergency Management.

Apparently, Racine County got the governor’s attention, and he responded: On Friday, he made public a letter he sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, requesting assistance under Section 14 of the 1946 Flood Control Act, which gives the corps emergency authority.

During his June 3 visit with The Journal Times Editorial Board, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that his office is working with the Army Corps and local officials, including Delagrave and Mount Pleasant Village Administrator Kurt Wahlen.

The Army Corps is determining whether the issue fits under the agency’s Section 14 emergency authority, Ryan said. Under Section 14, the Army Corps “is authorized to construct bank protection works to protect endangered highways, highway bridge approaches, and other essential, important public works, such as municipal water supply systems and sewage disposal plants, churches, hospitals, schools, and non-profit public services and known cultural sites that are endangered by flood-caused bank or shoreline erosion.”

“We’re moving as fast as can be done, meaning we’ve gotten this moving faster than I’ve ever seen it,” said Ryan, whose district includes all of Racine County. “The question is, how long will it take for them to study this situation, and what resources are available there.”

We don’t seem to have reached the higher threshold required for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, but we definitely have an issue with regard to local infrastructure: It’s a short trip north along the shoreline from the worst of the existing Caledonia erosion to We Energies’ Oak Creek Power Plant.

Our situation isn’t at the level of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or the New York-New Jersey area after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. But with our shoreline erosion crisis, we have an issue which calls for a remedy from an arm of the federal government; in this case, it’s the Army Corps of Engineers.

To our fellow federal taxpayers, we say: We helped you then. You must help us now.

— The Journal Times of Racine

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