News Three Rivers Commercial-News, Penny Saver, & Sturgis Sentinel

County seeking public feedback as part of hazard mitigation plan

The cover image for a hazard mitigation plan in the process of being drafted by St. Joseph County. A survey is open now to the public to get their thoughts on natural hazards and how much they affect the county as part of the planning process. Photo via St. Joseph County

By Robert Tomlinson
News Director

CENTREVILLE — Natural hazards have affected St. Joseph County in numerous ways over the years.
Most recently, winter storms, most involving ice, have led to schools being closed for several days in the last two weeks, but severe thunderstorms, windstorms and flooding have wreaked some havoc on the area in the recent past, notably with the straight-line winds and storms that rolled through the county in 2021.
To try to help combat those natural hazards in the future, St. Joseph County officials are seeking the public’s assistance in drafting a new hazard mitigation plan for the county, starting with a public survey released on Tuesday in both hard copy and digital forms.
The survey can be found digitally by following the link on the St. Joseph County website, stjosephcountymi.org, or by going to bit.ly/SJCHazardSurvey. Hard copies can be found at the Commission on Aging’s Oaks Enrichment Center in Sturgis and Rivers Enrichment Center in Three Rivers, or at the historic St. Joseph County Courthouse building.
A hazard mitigation plan, according to St. Joseph County Emergency Manager Erin Goff, is a document that identifies disaster risks and vulnerabilities that are common for a specific area, and incorporates long-term strategies that can protect people and property from the impacts of those events.
“We want it to be a useful and living document for us, and a guide for us in the county,” Goff said. “If there’s something we can be doing to make things safer, we can do it.”
Some of those strategies, Goff said, could include education and awareness programs, as well as structure and infrastructure projects to modify existing buildings or infrastructure to help protect against hazards, something she particularly took note of.
“There are specific places that have ongoing issues with low-lying areas, and there are mitigation projects that have occurred in other places that can help reduce the amount of flooding or to get people out of certain flood plains,” Goff said. “It varies by area, so if you read a hazard mitigation plan from Georgia or Oregon versus one from Michigan, they would look very different. That’s one of the reasons why step one is documenting what those hazards are.”
So far, Goff said, the top three hazards the plan’s steering committee has determined based on historical data from 2001-2021 are severe thunderstorms, winter storms and high wind events. Flooding, Goff added, was in the top five.
The process of creating the plan involves a copious amount of data collection on events that have taken place in the area, from organizations and agencies like the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), the National Weather Service (NWS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which Goff said can help establish what kind of mitigation projects would be useful for the county, and creating a plan to implement it. Such a plan has been in the works for a little over a year.
A hazard mitigation plan, Goff said, is different from an emergency operations plan, which the county already has, and is mandated by the state and federal government. She said the mitigation plan is moreso for “planning and preparedness.”
“An emergency operations plan is really about how we can plan to have an effective response, and a hazard mitigation plan is much more broad and high-level, and can’t be used in acute emergencies,” Goff said. “They are for advanced planning and long-term strategies.”
While it isn’t mandated to have a hazard mitigation plan in place – the county has never had such a plan before now – Goff said having one that was approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would be useful if the county decided to go after mitigation funding from that agency.
When asked why the county hasn’t had one before now, Goff said that was mainly due to the time it takes to put it together. She said while there have been hazard analyses done in the past, there have been attempts to create a comprehensive mitigation plan, which for one reason or another haven’t taken shape.
“There have been efforts to draft one previously, but the problem with a hazard mitigation plan is the process is very lengthy, and while there are grant opportunities out there to help bring in a contractor, the cost share is still pretty big,” Goff said. “I joke about this a little bit that I have to carve out time to work on this project when a lot of other counties hire someone to do it.”
However, Goff noted it was important to have a plan in place now for reasons other than funding.
“The more information we have, the better prepared we will be to adapt to the changing nature of everything,” Goff said. “We know natural hazards are impacting a lot of things that happen. They impact our infrastructure; they impact our daily lives. We know natural hazards have a big impact on how we live our lives, and whatever we can do to help make sure we’re safe and our property is safer, we want to be able to do that.”
Part of gathering that information will include a public survey. The survey asks residents of St. Joseph County questions about natural hazards they’ve experienced, such as floods, high winds, and winter storms, as well as extreme temperatures, dam failure, invasive species and droughts, as well as how concerned they are about each of these natural hazards. It also asked how prepared people believe their household or business is for natural hazard events in the county and how they get information about natural disaster impacts and preparedness.
Goff said it was important for county residents to fill out the survey so that the county can engage with its residents about which natural events they find most concerning so they can put together a comprehensive plan.
“I want to know what people are worried about; I would like to know what their experiences have been, what their knowledge base is and how they get their information,” Goff said. “If there’s a way we can be doing things that’s better or more effective, that’s something we can put into the plan.”
The survey will be open for three weeks, until Friday, Feb. 9. The data collected will be included in a draft of the mitigation plan, which does not have a concrete timeline for release at this time.
Overall, Goff said she looks forward to drafting the plan and making sure the public has their say in its creation.
“I hope that people will feel that this is an important thing and something that they can do both to contribute and I hope everyone gets something out of this place in the end,” Goff said. “Whether they’re a business owner or a resident, the whole point is that if something happens, we want to be able to help. If there’s a way we can help mitigate some of those [hazards] to prevent loss of life and damage to property, that’s why we’re doing this.”
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

One Reply to “County seeking public feedback as part of hazard mitigation plan

  1. Very nice.
    I believe the intersection of s. River Rd. And covered bridge Rd could be studied as to view /obstruction hazards regarding oncoming traffic from covered bridge southbound, and resident’s landscaping bushes.

Leave a Reply