Indiana leaders take preemptive measures as water level continues to rise in Lake Michigan
Every morning Geof Benson wakes in his Beverly Shores home and reaches for his phone.
For Benson, this routine is as common as grabbing a cup of coffee. However, on one recent morning, the long-time Beverly Shores resident was very rattled.
The website, which specializes in wind and wave forecasts, is Benson’s go-to resource “for predicting what's coming at you.” During one recent morning, Benson noted Beverly Shores residents and their neighbors were going to be in for a wild ride.
Lake Michigan water levels are at their highest point in three decades, according to government officials. That fact has led to extensive beach erosion in some areas of the states that share its more than 1,600 miles of shoreline, including 45 miles in Indiana.
The mild winter hasn’t helped matters in Indiana. Limited ice development meant no annual natural barrier to protect the lakeshore from fierce winds, which has wreaked havoc on many lakefront towns, including Beverly Shores, Ogden Dunes, Portage and Long Beach.
This crisis has the state’s attention as the devastated shoreline is placing communities as well as a lucrative tourism industry at risk.
State acts with executive order
Gov. Eric Holcomb, Indiana Department of Homeland Security and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, as well as local and federal agencies, are working together to save the state’s Lake Michigan shoreline to keep communities and their residents safe. In late February, Holcomb signed an executive order, which outlined the state’s plan to address the problem.
“Our administration has been monitoring the erosion along the Lake Michigan shoreline, but I wanted to see the damage firsthand,” Holcomb said, who in late February did an aerial survey along the lakeshore to view the erosion damage.
Photos taken by Holcomb detailed the erosion around Beverly Shores. In his executive order, Holcomb directed state agencies to collect damage information, which could lead to a declaration of disaster emergency along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
He also outlined steps the state will take to assist the affected parts of the shoreline and to preserve “one of our state's crown jewels for all those who live, work and play along the shoreline.”
Holcomb's order calls for the IDHS to notify the governor's office if the damage criteria, set by the federal government, is met. That threshold would allow Indiana to apply for federal disaster assistance so the governor can declare a disaster emergency. He also ordered IDHS to seek other federal funding, programs or assistance that might be available for short- and long-term mitigation projects.
Holcomb's order directs the DNR to expedite its review and granting of governmental permits requested by property owners so they could begin any work to protect their property from further damage due to erosion.
The state is facing a major hurdle in its efforts to address lakeshore erosion and making a disaster declaration.
David Hosick, IDHS spokesman, said the challenge is that the problem has occurred over time and not tied to a single event such as a storm or other natural disaster, a requirement by statute for any disaster declaration.
However, the governor’s executive order means the state now is regularly monitoring the condition of the Lake Michigan shoreline as well as keeping watch of any damage to property or public infrastructure because of erosion. If a major issue arises, the state can respond, and if problems worsen, it could lead to a disaster declaration and federal assistance, officials said.
In the meantime, state leaders will continue working with local and federal partners to find solutions and to have resources available to assist affected communities. And while the process is in motion, Indiana shoreline residents, including Benson, can only wait and hope for the best.
Benson said the Army Corps of Engineers predict the lake will rise another foot in the next year, making grave matters even worse. “It's been a very interesting time,” he said.
At the beginning of 2020, Lorelei Weimer, executive director of Indiana Dunes Tourism, was riding a high.
In the previous year, about 3.6 million visitors came to the Indiana Dunes National Park. It became the country’s 61st national park in February 2019.
A single word change in the park’s name led to a visitor spike of between 25% and 30%, Weimer said.
“But now, a year later, we're facing this situation with the erosion,” she said.
Rising water levels, combined with more precipitation, intense storms and manmade structures obstructing the natural flow of sand, paint a bleak picture.
Drone footage taken in November 2018 led Weimer to predict that a certain dune would soon breach, leaving a nearby pavilion on an island of its own. Less than a year after she made others aware of her concern, the inevitable came true.
“I'm trying to tell people we're not crying wolf,” she said. “You can look at that pavilion on a little piece of land now. I just hope we don't lose the building. It's only been around for 10 or 15 years.”
Beach access points, which allowed wheelchair-bound visitors to enjoy views of the lake and the sunsets and the sand, are completely under water because of high water levels.
Despite issues caused by rising water levels and erosion, there are reasons to remain optimistic, Weimer said. The park has 15 miles of beaches, and not all of them have been impacted in the same way.
Focusing on the positive is critical for Weimer, whose office works to draw visitors to the dunes and Indiana’s lakefront.
If visitors don’t come, the Region’s businesses will be affected.
“These visitors come into our community and eat at local restaurants, shop our local retail (and) stay at our hotels,” Weimer said.
To keep visitors coming, Weimer and her team regularly reach out to hotels and make their presence known on social media, letting potential guests know it is business as usual.
Speros Batistatos, president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, is fully aware of the erosion problem but doesn't think it will slowdown beachgoers.
“I'm not sure how familiar visitors are with (the lakeshore) erosion,” Batistatos said. “They don't know that there is 15 less feet of beach than there (were) five years ago.”
Batistatos wants the shoreline preserved and remains confident the Indiana Dunes National Park will continue attracting visitors.
Visitors might view the national park designation and Lake Michigan as the major draw, but Batistatos said there is more to be seen and experienced in Northwest Indiana.
“I see this (situation) as a silver lining,” he said. “Not to downplay erosion, (because) it's absolutely important, but this will necessitate the visitor to find other things to do. Like, let's go bird watching in one of the greatest migratory bird stops in America. … There's other stuff to do (in Northwest Indiana) besides get sand in your shoes and go home sunburned.”
Reality for Benson and his Beverly Shores residents, however, is more complicated than a slightly smaller beachfront.
Decades ago, many residents lost beachfront homes, and the prospect of losing the town's major road becomes more real as water levels rise and more shoreline disappears.
It has become such a reality that Benson and his crew tie yellow ribbons to trees close to the coast's edge. If the trees eventually fall over the shore wall, Lake Front Drive will need to close for repairs.
“The transportation and utility backbone of our town is in constant jeopardy,” he said. “If we lose this road, the consequences will be catastrophic to our community, and the cost to move forward from there will be far higher.”
A little more than $52,000 has been raised by Beverly Shores residents to repair three scours impacting Lake Front Drive. Scours are localized losses of soil ruining the road. The raised funds only cover half of one scour's repair. The town will likely have to refinance its debt and hope for reimbursements to fix them all.