After Portland ice jam, state changes process for emergency aid request

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

State emergency management officials told a mid-Michigan community this month that the state will change the way it processes emergency aid requests after the community was denied financial aid to pay for its response to a massive ice jam that caused flooding in 2019. 

State agencies are mum on the changes, with Attorney General Dana Nessel's office and the Michigan State Police declining to comment on the situation. 

The changes will clarify the process for getting emergency aid in a way that more closely aligns with the process outlined in Michigan’s Emergency Management Act, said Chris Hackbarth, director of state and federal affairs for the Michigan Municipal League. 

This Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019 photo shows a view of downtown Portland, Mich., and the ice jam in the Grand River. About 50 people were evacuated due to flooding.

Michigan State Police’s interpretation of the law after the 2019 ice jam in Portland was different from the process the state has used in the past, Hackbarth said.  

“When Portland was denied, we were really surprised because that wasn’t the common understanding of the law,” Hackbarth said. “Portland was the first instance where I’ve heard of this situation occurring.”

The 2019 Grand River ice jam caused the banks of the river to flood, leading to residential evacuations, later flash flooding, and damage to homes and businesses. 

The Michigan State Police’s emergency management operation denied Ionia County about $163,000 in emergency aid in 2019, citing a requirement that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer authorize the release of the funding, according to the city of Portland. An October 2019 letter from the agency also claimed Portland, nearby Belding, and Ionia County did not need state financial help. 

"Neither of the three jurisdictions exhausted or nearly exhausted their resources while responding to or recovering from this incident," Michigan State Police Capt. Emmitt McGowan said in the letter to the Ionia County Board of Commissioners.

Portland, which had gone through the emergency aid process a few years earlier after a tornado, maintained that the only authorization that was needed to disperse the emergency funding was a declaration of a state of emergency from the governor and that certain eligibility criteria was met to receive up to $250,000 in Section 19 funding. 

Even if there was a step requiring Whitmer to authorize a release of funds, there was never a clear explanation why she declined to release them, said City Manager Tutt Gorman. 

“The damages for the flood were more than the (2015) tornado,” Gorman said. “How did they approve us then and not now?”

The city joined with the Michigan Municipal League to challenge the determination from the Michigan State Police. Under new leadership in April, the MSP Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division requested an advisory opinion on the topic from Nessel’s office. 

The office, state police told the city, determined a declaration of a state of emergency combined with compliance with eligibility criteria was enough to qualify for funding. No further authorization from the governor was needed, the city said.

The Michigan State Police and Nessel’s office, citing attorney-client privilege, would not release the advisory opinion to The Detroit News, the city of Portland or the Michigan Municipal League. Neither state agency would answer questions about the opinion or the change of procedure. 

Of Portland’s $253,000 in infrastructure repair costs following the ice jam and flooding, about $100,000 was covered by insurance, Gorman said. The remaining $153,000 in costs were supposed to be eligible for state funding under Section 19 of the Emergency Management Act, he said. 

When the state denied Portland’s appeals for the funding, the state Legislature  earmarked funding in the October budget to reimburse the city. Whitmer signed the spending bill in late September. 

Even with that funding secure through other means, the city is happy to have clarification from Michigan State Police on the process for future reference, Gorman said. 

"This change to the process will provide much needed clarity to communities across the state and will streamline the process during emergencies when time is most precious," Gorman said. "Although the City of Portland successfully obtained the disaster funding through the legislative process, this may not have been necessary had a formal legal review been conducted when this issue was initially raised.”