Ice build-up causes St. Clair River flooding, prompts use of ice cutters

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The U.S. Coast Guard has deployed four ice breakers to clear ice build-up in the St. Clair River that has caused coastal flooding, trapped ships from traversing the waterways and closed a ferry service.

Coast Guard officials said they began to get calls from residents this week about flooding in various towns along the river about the water "threatening homes and businesses," Coast Guard spokesman Jeremiah Schiessel said Wednesday.

St. Clair County issued a flood warning. There were high waters in East China Township, Marine City and Algonac.

Kathy Beaton of East China Township and her husband Lorne experienced flooding issues.

“Last year's flooding was worse," Kathy Beaton told The Detroit News. "We have the highest house on the block, so our deck is still two inches above the flood water.

"All the stray cats and animals are under our deck,” she added.

Emergency management officials in St. Clair County blame winds that pushed ice floes from Lake Huron down into the river that prompted as much as three feet of flooding in certain areas that buried yards and cars in water.

"And it happened really quick," said Mark White, deputy director for the St. Clair County office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

"We have four cutters working that river, so there's a lot of real estate to cover but we're hopeful that they can get things accomplished.

"(Towns) are experiencing some super high water. A lot of coastal flooding. Yards are totally flooded out. Driveways totally impacted and quite a few cars impacted as well."

Lorne Beaton and his wife, Kathy,  drive on Loretta approaching Pointe Drive. as they leave East China Township on Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 3, 2021. An ice jam in the St. Clair River is causing significant flooding, prompting St. Clair County to issue a flood warning.

The Harsens Island Ferry has been shut down due to the ice build-up since Monday. But the ferry service is scheduled to reopen Thursday at 9 a.m., according to a ferry company voicemail and Clay Township police.

Two cutters — The Bristol Bay, a U.S. vessel, and The Griffon, a Canadian vessel — were in the region earlier Wednesday, Schiessel said. Two more, one from the Cleveland area, also arrived in the region by the afternoon to help with ice breaking, county officials said.

"We're diligently working to relieve the flooding situation, but Mother Nature is a pretty powerful force," Schiessel said. "When you're talking about trillions of gallons of water that is basically trying to go through a funnel, it can wreak havoc even with all of our resource and really tax our resources."

The Coast Guard representative said he was unsure how many areas were flooded, but that the Coast Guard is working with the county emergency managers and other officials to deal with the issue.

Stephen Goetgeluck drives in East China Township to evacuate family members in the area. The township and Marine City in St. Clair County have significant flooding.

The Great Lakes have experienced lower-than-age ice cover this season with an average of 11.8% on Tuesday — far below the historical 53% average. Lake Huron had about 20% ice cover with most of the frozen formations clustered along the shore lines, according to a satellite image by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

Even in below-average seasons, ice chunks can break loose and form ice jams along the St. Clair River.

The Bristol Bay cutter had a malfunction after going to break out a tug trapped in the ice on Tuesday — right around the time ice was starting to form, Schiessel said.

"We were already out there freeing the tug and patrolling before we started getting all the calls in," he said. "That' why we have more tugs coming up."

The flooding comes as National Weather Service projects dropping temperatures heading into the weekend that will prompt more ice build-up.

In the Port Huron area, Thursday is expected to hit a high of 34 degrees and a low of 22 degrees that evening. It will be followed Friday by a forecast of snow showers, a high of 28 degrees and a low of 14 degrees.

The snow showers are projected to linger into the weekend as temperatures are expected to drop as low as 8 degrees Saturday night and a low Sunday night of 5 degrees.

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