Ice jam flooding causes damage across county

Rifle River reaches second-highest level on record


ARENAC COUNTY — Around 11 people were assisted by firefighters in exiting their homes Feb. 21-22 as the Rifle and Au Gres rivers flooded, leading to several homes being destroyed and multiple properties damaged from one end of the county to the other.

The flooding began when water in the Rifle River began to rise over the banks the morning of Feb. 21, causing the Sterling Area Fire Department, Standish Area Fire Authority and sheriff’s department to be dispatched to multiple residences on the 4000 block of Pinnacle Drive in Deep River Township. On that block, five people, including one young child, and multiple pets were assisted in evacuating their homes by firefighters and the sheriff’s department. With ice jams still occurring along the river, the Rifle flooded further downstream in the Omer area Feb. 22.

A damage assessment organized by Emergency Management Coordinator Ed Rohn was held Saturday, Feb. 23, with about 40 people representing Emergency Management and Homeland Security Region 3. Preliminary assessments showed 12 homes to be totally destroyed, nine with major damage, nine with minor damage and 11 others considered affected by flooding.

However, Rohn said some properties on Conrad Road and Johnson Drive in Arenac Township, where flood impact was significant starting Thursday, Feb. 22, were unaccessible. Assessment personnel are scheduled to return to those areas Wednesday, Feb. 28, Rohn said.

“The river was still flooding,” he said. “There was still ice coming onto the shore in the Johnson Drive area. Some of the roads are impassable. In some of the areas the roads will need to be repaired before there is access.”

Along with the more than 40 residential properties assessed Saturday, Rohn said campground and canoe liveries were also inspected for damage.

“Due to their being right on the river, they were some of the most affected properties,” he said. “There was one that lost a storage building. You can see where it was at. The foundation is still there, but the structure is gone down the stream somewhere. I think the hardest hit was their electrical outlets at the campsites — the pedestals. We had huge chunks of ice, some the size of automobiles, and those moving around in the water pretty much broke anything off that was protruding out of the ground.”

Arenac County Undersheriff Don McIntyre said although the Rifle River reaches flood stages several times a year, last week’s event was the worst he’d ever seen it flood. Had it not been for firefighters pulling a boat close to one of the flooded homes and lifting a resident and her cat into it, the situation could have been very dire, he said.

“The Standish firefighters went into the house to rescue the elderly lady and that water was rising fast,” he said. “Unlike some flooding situations this was truly a life-or-death situation.”

McIntyre said when the firefighters made entrance into the first home to help the female occupant safely exit, Pinnacle Drive was visible, but in a matter of a few minutes — by the time she was taken to safety — water was knee-high on the roadway. He and a deputy made their way to residences on Miller and Franklin roads near the river to urge people to evacuate.

Firefighters weren’t done assisting with evacuations Wednesday, though. Around 2:30 p.m. Feb. 22, the Standish Area Fire Authority was dispatched to North Johnson Drive in Arenac Township to aid residents with evacuating their flooded homes.

“There were three people we rescued in a boat and also two more we helped guide out of their flooded driveway in the truck, so there were five we helped evacuate at Johnson Drive,” said SAFA Chief Mitch Oliver.

Oliver, a 30-year veteran of the fire department, said he had never experienced flooding of this sort on the Rifle River.

“Maybe in my 30 years we’ve had three or four different times where we’ve had to remove people total,” he said. “We’ve never been down on Johnson. We’ve never been on Pinnacle for a rescue.”

Oliver said be believed a combination of factors was to blame for the flooding to be as severe as it was.

“The ice breakup along with 2 inches of rain all at the same time didn’t give it much of a chance for the ice to flow out, and the 2 inches of rain caused it to break up early,” he said. “We had snow melt, rain and ice breakup all at the same time, so it’s kind of a perfect storm.”

Historically the flood level at the Rifle River was the second-highest in its monitored history, peaking at 12.96 feet at 9:15 a.m. Wednesday morning. The all-time high water mark for the river was 13.7 feet on March 28, 1950, per the National Weather Service. The previous second-highest flood was March 21, 1948, when the river’s height was 12.62 feet.

Ladd White, the owner of White’s Canoe Livery in Sterling, said the ice buildup is the reason for much of the flooding issues.

“When it starts building and lifting and busting that ice, especially this time of year when there’s a lot of thickness to the ice, the water gets behind it and backs up,” he said. “It’s like a bulldozer pushing through everything. It can be very destructive and if it does it at the right places, you can see some major damage. Hopefully that’s not going to be the case.”

White’s, Outdoor Adventures, River View Campground and Canoe Livery and Rifle River Campground and Canoe Livery in Sterling all suffered some damage from the flooding Wednesday, with River Bend and Big Bend in Omer getting hit Thursday. Laurie Richardson, a co-owner of Rifle River Campground in Sterling, said this is the worst flooding she has ever seen.

“This has surpassed everything we’ve ever seen,” she told the Independent Wednesday morning. “It’s crazy.”

“We never had it close to our cabins and we have three cabins sitting in water right now, and we can’t get to them because the water’s too deep,” Richardson said.

The campground was covered with ice chunks Wednesday morning, one measuring 21 inches thick, Richardson said. She estimated that 90 percent of the campground was covered with ice chunks.

“There are big, probably 2-foot chunks of ice from the ice floe everywhere,” she said. “We’ve got cabins underwater. It’s a mess. We’ve had it 50 years here and it’s never, ever been like this.”

Along with the damaged cabins, the campground lost picnic tables and canoes, Richardson said.

“We pick them up every winter and we bring them up far enough to dry ground, but we’ve never had the water come up this high,” she said. “We’ve seen several of them float down the river. We’ve lost several canoes from our canoe rack. It’s almost up to our store.”

Knowing flooding was likely to occur in the Omer area Feb. 22, Rohn contacted the sheriff’s department Wednesday night and requested that it advise people on the east and west ends of Conrad Road to evacuate.

Arenac Township Treasurer Heather Bauman lives on Conrad Road and said her household, along with others in the neighborhood, had been making trips back and forth to their home via boat in order to retrieve items or attempt to pump out water.

“We have been boating back since it started,” she said. “Once we couldn’t drive, the community put canoes and kayaks out by the mailboxes to make sure we could get back and forth.”

Bauman said she was able to get back to her home by Friday evening.

Steve Vaughn, the owner of Big Bend Campground in Omer, said the flooding started to get significantly worse than normal late Wednesday night.

“It got high in the afternoon Wednesday, a normal flood, something that everybody around Omer’s been used to before,” he said. “When it got dark, the water came and it was coming up a foot an hour. It got in the store and made it to my house. Conrad Road was completely underwater.”

To salvage what he could — tractors, lawn mowers, buses — friends came to Vaughn’s aid with semis to haul things away from the campground.

“We moved stuff out of here until 2 o’clock in the morning with semis,” he said.

Other items were stored as high as possible to avoid water damage.

“I’ve got everything shoved in attics and barns,” Vaughn said. “We had stuff in the store we were putting up on shelves trying to keep it dry.”

While he was able to save some campground equipment, Vaughn said some of the campers owned by longtime and seasonal campers were likely damaged beyond repair.

“The main loss was for the customers,” he said. “Some of these people are elderly and coming here forever. Are they going to be able to rebuild? These people lost their vacation homes.”

“I hope they can rebuild, because we’re like a family,” Vaughn said.

White said he has lived along the Rifle River his whole life, but never saw any flooding this drastic.

“This isn’t the time of the year when this normally happens, but when it does, that’s what makes it so bad is the thickness of the ice,” White said. “What’s unusual about it is we didn’t have much snow and didn’t have a ton of rain, but for whatever reason this year the groundwater is very high.”

One major difference between then and now, White said, is the number of developments along the river’s banks.

“You go back into the 1950s when you had that high water and you had no places on the water,” he said.

“I was born in 1960, so I’ve watched the river for 55 years that I can remember,” White said. “We used to have a house on the banks. We had a house right on the river banks where the canoe fence was, and we never had water that came up into that. Now it’s 2.5 feet up into the paddle shed where that house was.”

Ice jam flooding wasn’t isolated to the Rifle River, though. The Au Gres River exceeded its banks Feb. 22-23, with the broken-up ice sweeping away docks in its path. City Manager John Stanley said it’s not uncommon for the river to creep up into the city campground along the river’s frontage, but this event was atypical.

“The thing is, the campground takes on water pretty much every spring,” he said. “This is more than normal, there’s no doubt about it.”

However, some of the flooding south of the campground is something Stanley said he has never seen before.

“It’s flooding areas south of the harbor of refuge and the ice is jammed up around where South Street would meet the river,” he said. “I’ve definitely never seen it like that.”

Like Johnson Drive in Arenac Township and Pinnacle Drive in Deep River Township, Baum Road in the city limits was closed when water washed over it, Stanley said.

“(Thursday) at the corner of Baum and Main, which is right at the outskirts of the north edge of the city limits, was underwater,” he said. “They have road closure signs on that. I believe in the city limits, that’s the only ones.”

Arenac County Road Commission Foreman Jim Hazeltine said as of 2:30 p.m. Friday, 15 roads in the county were closed due to flooding. For the most part, the damage was not too severe, he said.

“I’ve not seen anything that’s really expensive,” he said. “There are going to be some that it will cost thousands of dollars to put gravel back down or pull gravel back up from the side of the roads.”

Along with the rivers flooding, several drains also flooded, Hazeltine said, causing road closures in the Twining and Turner areas as well.

Road Commission Superintendent Blair Dyer said by Monday morning, most of the roads were reopened. He said as of Monday morning, crews were at work either being pulling gravel back up onto the roads where it has washed away or trucking it in to repair damaged roads and shoulders.

An American Red Cross emergency shelter was established at the Deep River Township Hall Wednesday for people displaced from their homes by the flooding. People needing information regarding the shelter and services can call 810-397-3736. Rohn said Monday, Feb. 26, that the shelter was still available, but on hold, as no citizens were being housed there any longer. He said Bikers 4 Kids and a group of private individuals working together to offer relief had also gotten in touch with him to offer up assistance for displaced or affected people.

As far as aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Rohn said he is not sure what help, if any, will be available.

“It’s too early to tell,” he said. “They are still surveying other areas in Region 3, which is our 14 county region. We will be able to use the other regions, we’re put into a group, and that may or may not help us.”

Over the weekend, water may subsided in many areas, but there was still a lot of ice at both the Rifle and Au Gres rivers’ mouths, Rohn said. Unlike previous eras, it is rare to dynamite the ice at the end of the river to aid with drainage, he said, due to the prospect of creating more trouble.

“When man tries to interfere in it, he may relieve some areas but bring trouble somewhere else downstream,” he said. “Mother Nature caused it and we depend on her to clean it up. All we can do is try to protect the structures in the way.”


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